Question time

October 22, 2016

times of malta

Saturday, 22nd October, 1946

cleaner-and-greener-header

Alfred E Baldacchino

Afforestation is beneficial to society, to the ecosystem and also economically if this is undertaken in a professional way. The economic, ecological, and social benefits are priceless. It contributes to better health conditions, reduces stress, contributes to storage of water, and reduces erosion. In some countries afforestation is included in their gross national product.

buskett-h-004-16-05-14

What everybody is wishing, and hoping and waiting for, but…

Afforestation contributes to the control of carbon dioxide in the atmospheres and gives back the indispensable life bearing oxygen, thus also addressing Climate Change which is having such a tremendous social, economic and ecological negative impacts on life on this planet.

But to be able to plan with determination and achieve such noble aims these benefits have got to be appreciated and understood.

The fact that a report on afforestation has remained on the shelf for two long years clearly shows that there is no political will, no political desire or determination, no political appreciation, no political understanding, no political awareness of the responsibility in taking any action towards the achievement of such benefits.

Not only so but the decimation of trees and the planting of exotics and invasive species going on unchecked, with political blessings also leads one to conclude that there is an official hate for indigenous trees in Malta.

No public consultation has been held on such a report. The only thing that has been done is the usual ‘animated cartoons’ showing where such afforestation projects can take place.

Furthermore, the much promised tree protection regulations, which go hand in hand with such afforestation projects, and which have been drafted three years ago under the previous Minister Leo Brincat, are still ‘being studied’ after being initially shot down by some technocrats. The new Minister during the House of Representatives Permanent Committee on Environment and Development Planning, some months ago promised that they will soon be out for public consultation.

What is holding the implementation of such an afforestation report and the accompanying regulations for the protection of trees and afforestation?

Without doubt the highest hurdle towards achieving such benefits in the national interest is the lack of political will. This is further extended to the many political advisers who are not au courant on related national and international obligations, if they are even aware of the government’s electoral manifesto.

From past experience, one can see how MEPA handled such biodiversity obligations, before it shed its “Malta and Environment” responsibilities and changed its clothing to a PA. One can also see the decisions being hurriedly taken by this PA, blindfoldedly approving developmental permits without any concerns for anyone or anything, except developers.

It also seems that ERA, after three years in limbo, has been so blinded by the light of day that it cannot even find its own two feet and seems to be still under the beck and call of its past bedfellow. Could the implementation of such an afforestation report be seen as a stumbling block to the PA?

Sometimes I honestly hope that such an afforestation report is kept on the shelf and postponed sine die by the Minister for the Environment.  I believe that if it were to be implement with the political expertise he is dependent on, it would be another brick in the wall towards the further massacre of the environment, both with regards to the choice of species, and also with the now institutionalised pro-business vision, leading to the importation of indigenous trees used for such project because of pressure from ‘landscapers’. All contrary to international obligations such as the EU Environment Acquis, the Berne Convention, its recommendations and decisions, and also the Biodiversity Convention.

sleeping-dog-cartoon

… unfortunately

Where there is a will there is a way. Naturally where there is NO will there is NO way, afforestation or not. So the best step forward is to let sleeping dogs lie.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

For the views of the Dr Josè Herrera, Minister for sustainable development, the Environment and Climate Change see the following link:

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20161022/opinion/Cleaner-and-greener.628708#.WAtVEVbhyoc.email

See also the following articles on my blog:

Another buskett onslaught

Trees butchered at university

Yet another toothless dog

Trees and invasive species

There is no respite for trees

The national wonders of tree pruning in Malta

Alien invasive species animation film

 

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Let’s hide our face in shame following further news on trees – 1

November 20, 2012

            Let’s hide our face in shame following further news on trees – 1

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Two recent articles published in the Times during November are clearly in line with the above quote by philosopher Schopenhauer. Two articles penned by two MEPA officials: the Director of the Environment Protection Directorate and an eminent gentlemen on the MEPA’s board.

The number of letters appearing in the media and on various blogs  complaining, criticising and disapproving  the mismanagement of trees, to put it mildly, embarrassed the Minister and his watchdog responsible for the protection,  communication, education and public awareness, to the extent that they have become almost isolated.  So MEPA have gone to the front line to dispel such complaints and belittle such criticism.

The first article Further notes on trees by MEPA’s  Director of the Environment Protection Directorate  was published on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 (see article on link below).

Conservationists and environmentalists were advised that “Overly high-pitched reactions to any discussion about trees could have the longer-term undesirable effect of discouraging some people from planting more trees on their properties”. Could this perhaps refer to the Nadur Cemetery which is threatening the livelihood of a community of farmers who cultivate hundreds of citrus trees in Wied il-Qasab because of MEPA’s approval for the construction of a cemetery?  Could it be a reference to MEPA’s postponement and postponement of an appeal’s decision while the building of the cemetery is still going on nearing completion? Or could it be  a reference to MEPA’s approval of the uprooting (except for 3) of all the trees in the Mdina Ditch including an 80+ year old olive tree, a dozen of  Cyprus trees, and nearly all the citrus trees and the indigenous wild ivy? Or perhaps to the latest MEPA permit for the building in part of an old garden in Villa Meckrech – Tas-Sinjura,  Għaxaq? Or perhaps due to the lack of public consultations with regards to the present mismanagemnt of trees in the islands?

The appeal regarding this developmend has been postponed and postponed and postponed by MEPA.
In the meantime works at the cemterey have continued. Not only so but during November 2012, the cemtery has been surrounded by a wall. Is it possible that MEPA has issued a permit for such a development? And if not, why has it not taken any action?

 Readers were also informed that  “the overall total amount of trees in Malta has increased significantly over the last decades” and “Trees were mainly planted in walled gardens, orchards, fields and some hunting grounds. It was during the British period that trees began to be planted more widely in urban public spaces and along roads.”  Which of these trees can be considered safe today under the present MEPA’s policy, vision of development and the shallow understanding of ecosystems? The above three examples clearly indicate that none  are safe.

 “Afforestation projects carried out by both the government and environmental NGOs have planted thousands of trees in recent years.”  Very true but what kind of trees are being planted, and how were these planted? The 34U campaign has come to  mean more a Tree for Uprooting considering that the aim is more to boast about the quantity of trees (as highlighted in the quote above) rather than the quality and professionalism used. These have been planted so close to each other that they need to be thinned out if they are to grow and form a canopy.  Some of them have to be uprooted. Besides what kind of trees are being planted? Most of them are imported, some are  exotic and even invasive, to the extent that the number of aliens species being imported is alarming. This despite the fact that MEPA is the  authority responsible to ensure that this should  not happen.

With regards to the criticism  regarding the uprooting of Paola square trees, MEPA said that “In this case, the final decision on whether the Paola trees will be uprooted now rests with the local council.” Does this mean that a permit will be issued by MEPA for uprooting these trees if the Paola Local Council decides so? Has MEPA renounced its responsibility for the protection of trees in Malta?

With regards to the Mdina Ditch fiasco, MEPA’s official wrote that “The cultural heritage experts advising on the project gave priority to enhancing the view of the historic bastions and ditch, which are unique, rather than the citrus trees which are far from unique and can be moved. On the other hand, other persons gave more importance to the citrus trees growing in the ditch, which have no relevance to the historic bastions but which have been there for some time and which people had become accustomed to enjoying. An outcry ensued. It was a question of perspective.”

 I am sorry to say that this is side-tracking the whole issue.  The citrus trees were not the main concern.  The greatest concerns were the uprooting of protected olive trees, one more than 80 years old (with MEPA’s endorsement), the destruction of the ecological habitat formed by the ivy growing on the side of the Howard Gardens, the amount of turf which will be planted, the amount of water which this will take, the dancing water fountains (which have no relevance to the historic bastions), the excavation of water cisterns which do not figure in the MEPA permit for the works in the ditch. All this with MEPA approval? A question of perspective or an overly high-pitched reaction!

“Ficus nitida can however be inconvenient when situated very close to benches and popular recreational spots, due to their small dark fruit which covers the ground in certain seasons, and their attraction to birds which can lead to a considerable amount of bird droppings – as seen, for instance, in the square outside the Gozo Ministry in Rabat.”

porofessional management

Dingli Local Council’s solution –
the birds can poo to their heart’s content; the tree can shed its leaves without concern, and the people can sit and gossip all day and all night long.
MEPA’s solution – chop the tree down and  the bill will be paid from public funds.

Established trees form part of an ecosystem and IF there is a problem this is not solved by cutting down the trees to keep the birds away. Why not move the   benches in the first place, for example?  Such a statement coming from MEPA vindicates those who maintain that the Environment Directorate and the Planning Directorate should never be together because MEPA still does not understand what an ecosystem means.  Some local council have managed to solve this problem which MEPA, for some reason or other, has not even dreamt of.

The article concluded by a reference to the National Environment Policy emphasising that

“Its implementation requires no less than a gradual cultural shift, across the board.”

So very true. Such a cultural shift is desperately and urgently needed especially by MEPA who has been entrusted with the protection of the natural heritage, as obliged by the various international conventions, not least those of the EU, and also by a  number of national legislation. This is urgently needed if the Government’s and MEPA’s nicely coloured publications, including the National Environment Policy, were not published  just to adorn the bookshelves of history. And unfortunately this and the other article referred to (which I will comment on in another post) do not guarantee that such a cultural shift is in site at all by the authority who has been entrusted to protect such a heritage in the people’s name.

MEPA’s  online article in The Times  can be accessed on:

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121113/opinion/Further-notes-on-trees.445157

OTHER RELATED READINGS:

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-nadur-cemetery-%E2%80%93-where-the-dead-will-haunt-and-curse-the-living/?preview=true&preview_id=374&preview_nonce=df7e841c61

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/massacre-of-mdina-ditch-trees-is-the-eu-really-involved/?preview=true&preview_id=1050&preview_nonce=3835a76b71

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/trees-open-letter-to-the-prime-minister/?preview=true&preview_id=1375&preview_nonce=5e0a18cf49

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/once-there-were-green-leaves/?preview=true&preview_id=1182&preview_nonce=a98051a563

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/qerda-tal-biodiversita-fil-foss-tal-imdina-biex-isir-gnien-ta-kwalita/?preview=true&preview_id=1266&preview_nonce=9544b7e2f7

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/environmentalists-vs-government-over-trees/?preview=true&preview_id=1138&preview_nonce=7ada24a171

 


Water

May 21, 2010

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Water – ALFRED E. BALDACCHINO

The international scenario – Today there is quite a healthy awareness of global environmental problems such as climate change, global food   crisis, the spiralling cost of fossil fuel, and the melting Arctic ice cap. However, one can rightfully conclude that these global crises have somewhat overshadowed the water crisis, despite the fact that water is a central resource, both directly and indirectly related to all the others. This may be due to the fact that global concerns have been tackled separately rather than in a holistic way. It is therefore not surprising that a serious management approach for such a scarce resource has dwindled due to the lack of, or weakened, strategy. This despite the fact that at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg in 2002, it was agreed that countries should integrate water-resource management and water-efficiency plans by 2005. One can understand that tackling such a complex subject differs from one country to another so it is not that easy to formulate a generic “roadmap”.

The Maltese scenario – Malta is one of the top 10 arid countries in the world. It has always been so. This was one of the main reasons why the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem were not at all keen on setting up house in Malta. It was Hobson’s choice that established them here in 1530. With regard to the supply and availability of water, the Order’s professional tailor-made management plans are still valid and still serve the islands and its people. This despite the fact that today some of their management measures are neglected, while others have been abused or completely eliminated in the very recent past. The legal obligation that every dwelling should have a well to collect rainwater was a very intelligent measure; it still is and still serves the inhabitants who are fortunate enough to have such a system. Still in force today although hardly enforced, if at all: “Every house shall also have a cistern in good condition, of a capacity of at least three cubic metres, for every five square metres of the surface of the floor of each room of such house.” (Chapter 10 of the Laws of Malta – Code of Police Laws).

The affluent world we live in today could tempt some to convince themselves that Malta does not have any particular water problem, because the islands are surrounded by sea, has unlimited water access, and so can never run out of water. Try drinking a drop of such water! One can, but only after it has been processed by energy-intensive desalination plants, which contribute to climate change as well as to the food crisis that is demanding more water. And, God forbid, what if there is an oil spill or other toxic leaks in the vicinity of the desalination plants? The Mediterranean is one of the most frequented seas in the world, and European news speak with alarming enthusiasm about the nuclear plants being planned around the Mediterranean coast.

A management plan – Sadly, the word “management” is one word that seems very difficult for us to comprehend, to administer, enforce and implement. We are more accustomed to mismanagement with crisis management being our rule of thumb. The water management plans drafted and implemented by the Knights of Malta are barely implemented or strengthened, despite the fact that the demand for such a precious resource has increased substantially. The consequences of centuries of neglect are now becoming evident. To be able to have a sustainable management plan one must have the necessary data, besides the necessary tools, to consistently monitor and enforce. Some points to address for data gathering are:

  • Water tables:  both the perched and the lower water tables have contributed substantially, and still do, to the welfare of the Maltese community, both from an economical, social and ecological point of view. The ever increasing demand for water and the availability of mechanical and technological facilities have made it much easier to access, and also have an negative impact on such a resource. The number of bore holes, legal and illegal, all reach deep down and pump up this water. The legal and illegal use of pesticides, herbicides, natural and artificial fertilisers, can, and some do, finish in the aquifers. The state of the environment indicators for 2007 published by Mepa, clearly show that the increase of nitrate levels in the aquifers exceeds EU standards. How long will the ground water be available and be potable?
  • Protection of sensitive springs:  dried river beds, known as valleys (widien), traverse the islands from west to east. Today we are more familiar with springs (għejjun) that feed precious water to the surroundings, some a sorry reminder of their glorious past. Some springs are behind closed and chained doors, others have been sucked dry, while others still laboriously function, without doubt carrying the hidden chemicals of “progressive” farming and landscaping. Others, managed as a whole network of planed tunnels and culverts ensuring that not a drop of water is wasted, engineered by the Knights of Malta, have watered hundreds of trees and vegetables for centuries. Yet some of these networks have been cut off from their source, like the ones at Nadur, which have been extensively damaged to make way for a glorified place for the dead – a cemetery. Progressive planning for our future demand for graves perhaps!
  • Afforestation:  it is not only denuding the land of its vegetation that has an impact on water resources, but also the choice of species that are planted. The thousands of alien Eucalyptus trees planted in valleys, on garigue, in fields, in abandoned fields, and in urban areas, do have a tremendous negative impact on water resources. The fact that these trees are used to drain marshes will help one conclude that they contribute to the waste of ground water. A relatively recent trend is the laying of open spaces with turf, some even in roundabouts. Aesthetically they are pleasing. They are however irrigated by electrically powered sprinklers, which at times water even the roads. In the context of the local environment, it is like filling a valley with ice where one can go skating in summer. Not impossible, but at what cost! Thank God that plans for golf courses seem to have been shelved.
  • Urban planning:  every footprint of any building has its impact on water. This was fully understood by the planners and professional resource managers of the Knights of Malta. They ensured that every drop of water that fell on buildings was meticulously saved. In today’s technological era, it is ensured that every drop of water that falls on such buildings is mechanically channelled into the streets so that it can find its own natural and at-no-cost way to the sea. The amount of water going to waste is unbelievable. It does not have to rain cats and dogs: just a shower, like the Birkirkara and Qormi residents, among others, can attest. Due to the aridity of the islands, the Maltese have always prayed for rain. Today, the more rain God sends us, the more water will flood the streets on its way to the open sea. We desperately need to pray to God to illuminate our planners and resource managers and help them get to grips with the management of such a scarce resource similar to the management plans implemented by the Knights of St John 400 years ago.
  • Wise use:  this waste of water is the result of our acceptance and dependence on energy consuming desalination plants, despite their fragility and financial cost. We are so obsessed with desalination plants that the precious second-class water, which according to the EU is being produced from sewage treatment plants, has been officially declared as water of “no economic value”, and is being discharged into the sea. Only for the RO plants a couple of metres away to take it up again with more concentrated salinity, to be processed into potable water. Even if such plants were to use wind or solar energy, it would still be a waste of energy and resources and lacking any management plan.

Conclusion – We are treading on very, very thin ice, and if no urgent attention is given to implement a professional management plan for such a fragile, delicate, and rare resource, we could find ourselves in very deep waters, ironically enough without the possibility of having a drop to drink. Such a management plan has to be part of a holistic national sustainable development plan, having the input of all other entities which directly or indirectly use or have an impact on water resources, incorporating health, agriculture, industry, waste, tourism, finance and the environment. Everyone has to play his part for a real sustainable future. Procrastination is the thief of time. Where there is water there is life. There is no life where there is no water.