Times of Malta, 17 September 2010

Malta does not have many natural resources or great quantities of them. So why can’t we manage them properly?

Just look at the state of three of our existing key resources: land, water and limestone. To those, add a potential resource: renewable energy. All four are in a deplorable state. Why are they not being better supervised?

Unfortunately, here we must confront a story of lack of vision, ignored objectives and flawed management. Sadly, this has been the case for many decades, and under several administrations, and the wounds are deep.

Our land has been overdeveloped. The planning policies have long been riddled with inconsistencies, giving scant importance to quality or design in urban areas. Our pocket-sized countryside is besieged by small buildings, neglect, dumping and other illegalities and hardly any of the protected areas are being managed yet. All this is, of course, complicated by the fact that Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Water has presented a challenging problem in arid Malta throughout history. However, our natural aquifers are now being grossly over-exploited and depleted. It has often been put forward that waste water can be recycled and used for agriculture and industry in order to reduce water extraction from boreholes, yet, no enabling infrastructure has been put in place. Our new sewage treatment plants handle waste water but throw it back into the sea instead. Our immediate needs have been met through reverse osmosis, yet, this still relies on polluting and expensive fossil fuel.

Limestone is a non-renewable and limited mineral resource. It is an integral part of our urban landscape and often considered to form part of Malta’s national identity. It has been estimated that, at this rate of quarrying, there will only be enough limestone left to supply the building industry for another 30 years or so. However, no efforts are being made to encourage the re-use of stone when buildings are demolished and, instead, the stones are broken up or crushed and discarded.

We are still far from achieving any significant levels of renewable energy production and we continue to rely almost exclusively upon fossil fuel.

The obligation to manage our environment competently has been ignored for so long that now we are faced with very steep targets to be reached in a short time.

Many of our politicians, on both sides of the House, have taken far too long to appreciate the importance of environmental issues. The country urgently needs more vision, direction and action on the environment, with a wider group of legislators pushing the environmental agenda forward.

As a positive step, the government has recently finally begun drawing up a National Environment Policy. It is easy to be sceptical about this, as various environmental reports were drawn up in the past and left to gather dust in back rooms. Nonetheless, it is important that we have an environment policy so the effort should be supported.

The environment cannot be considered as a sector in isolation. The new policy will never be of any use unless its recommendations are integrated into the strategies and policies of other sectors – such as transport, energy, industry and tourism – which often have negative impacts on the environment or conflicting targets.

The environment report published by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority earlier this year has not received much attention. It is filled with recommendations and information which must not be ignored. The new environment policy should build on this, as well as on other reports of previous years, and ensure that all those past efforts and discussions are not wasted.

I have mentioned four natural resources. However, there are many other environmental issues that require urgent attention, such as our coastal and marine resources, waste, fish stocks, biodiversity and air pollution.

Over the last few years, a lot of new environmental legislation has been put in place and public participation and consultation has also increased. The phrase “sustainable development” is steadily growing and multiplying into a kind of mantra. However, it can only change from a dream into reality when it is absorbed by all sectors. The new environment policy must reach far and deep to heal the wounds of our environment.

Dr Bianchi is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.