News & Events

Malta News - 19/09/2019

Singapore leads the world in land reclamation

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today 19th September 2019

Now that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made it clear he will not be resigning after the budget, one may safely bet that he will announce some form of land reclamation policy before he bows out.

Certainly, this is a major decision and one hopes that enough public consultation is carried out before a definitive master plan is discussed and approved in Parliament.

It is no coincidence that last week the media reported a leak about an unpublished ERA study, which has identified six potential areas for land reclamation. These include: Mġarr Harbour (Gozo), Buġibba and St Paul’s Bay Waterfront, Qalet Marku, Portomaso to Xgħajra, the spoil ground area off Xgħajra and the Marsaxlokk harbour area.

As can be expected the Portomaso to Xgħajra area is identified as having a potential scale of medium to large. The area could be used as an investment for commercial and industrial/urban purposes as well as the creation of natural habitats.

The island certainly needs more elbow room being a country with the highest level of population density in Europe. Some predict that given the rate of population growth, this may reach 700,000 by the year 2035.

Realistically for a small island state of 316 square kilometres with a total population reaching half a million and MTA aiming to expand tourism to reach three million annual visitors, it is worth considering land reclamation. In the coming years, 15,000 new foreign workers are expected to be recruited annually.

The subject of land reclamation is resisted by environmentalists and NGOs who militate against it saying such measures will upset the ecological, scientific and archaeological habitat amid other cultural values. Meanwhile, it follows that due to Malta’s size, its growing population density and burgeoning tourist sector any political announcements to encourage land reclamation are welcomed by property magnates but resisted by environmentalists.

In my opinion, there is nothing to stop us from attracting new investment to emulate Singapore’s success in land reclamation.

Singapore has opted for 24 per cent of land reclamation, having a population density of 8,155 people per square kilometre. Notwithstanding this concentration, it prides itself of more than 300 parks and four nature reserves.

Let us stop and ponder how Malta can learn a trick or two from Singapore’s green paradise. Malta ranks high on population density with an average 1,507 persons/square kilometre, compared with the EU average of 117 persons/square kilometre.

Currently, with low unemployment and blessed with a vibrant economy, politicians daily remind us of our hard-earned achievements. We rank among the fastest growing economies in the EU. Being so fortunate with economic success, yet we need a solution to our confined spaces and lack of greenery. Our children as they grow up want to enjoy better spatial living conditions.

Unsurprisingly, one meets with a natural resistance by coastal dwellers to any large-scale reclamation since the latter do not wish to spoil their pristine views. Some claim the value of their property depreciates when vast tracks of reclaimed land are added not far from their residences.

This may be understandable, but for the greater good something has to be sacrificed to provide more greenery and to relocate certain structures such as “waste serv” depots and eventually an all-embracing central incinerator.

Now that both sides of parliament voted for a Gozo tunnel to be commissioned this will extenuate the problem where to dump inert material as quarries are fast becoming full. Building debris from major scale projects such as Manoel island, the Xemxija mega cluster, the DB project and the Gozo tunnel – will accumulate a huge mountain of building waste which we cannot simply dump in the open sea.

Naturally, the construction lobby is very much in favour of large-scale land reclamation provided parts of the land can be monetised via building permits. Needless to say, the coveted “Madliena” golden mile can yield top dollar land for luxury development.

A reclamation policy will inevitably reduce pressure on ODZ use but let us not repeat atrocious planning mistakes such as in Tigne and St Julians. New development has to blend and respect with sensitivity the aesthetic value and historical significance of the chosen site.

No repetition of the frenzied high-rise cacophony of a concrete jungle that ruined other parts of the island. By comparison, just reflect on how in the past we created a striving cruise liner and yacht berthing sector in Valletta and Cottonera by building new jetties – on reclaimed land.

Environmentalists need to balance their opposition and carefully weigh the advantages of achieving a better standard of living. Certainly, land reclamation is not new to the Maltese islands and here I can mention with approval the privatised Freeport terminals in Birzebbuga (employing thousands) and the platform on which the Shanghai Electric power station stands.

One remembers with nostalgia how reclamation improved logistics at Msida. Originally when the parish church was built it was facing the sea. Really and truly, there will always be an ecological price to pay. The hardest hit, from a purely environmental standpoint, is obviously the seabed.

Its integrity in terms of physical characteristics is ruined due to wiping out any biodiversity thriving on a particular site. The obvious collateral damage will be to the Posidonia oceanica meadows (seagrass) that lie over large tracts of seabed at shallow depths.

This merits serious consideration. Needless to say, the ecological significance of such meadows is well known in terms of stabilising the seabed and serving as nurture grounds for an immense variety of ethnic species and other marine organisms.

Also, any illegal dumping of inert waste at sea to build retaining walls for breakwater extensions disturbs the water column, contributing to turbidity. Ecologists warn us that substantial dumping takes ages to settle down as disturbed sediment on the seafloor and unassailably lowers the photosynthetic capabilities of aquatic species in that particular site to the detriment of the marine ecosystem as a whole.

Another concern is the toxic element inherent in unsorted waste such as heavy metals, burnt oil or other chemical species that could be absorbed by the marine ecosystem and in the process go to contaminate food chains.

The implications in terms of the resultant particulate matter levels in ambient air – for example, white and black specks of dust produced as a result of heavy machinery to move material to site – cannot be ignored. Another impediment is the numerous fish fattening pens close to the coast.

Now that the government has the vision to dig a seabed tunnel a reclamation policy goes likes a “horse and carriage”.

To get approval, it first needs to mollify opposition from an environmentalist lobby. Once consensus is reached, then that will be the day when Malta can rise like a latter-day Phoenix out of the ashes.

George Mangion

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today 19th September 2019
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