Tunnelling the cross

May 24, 2016

times of malta

Tuesday, 24th May, 2016

Tunnelling the cross

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The proposed tunnel crossing under the 10km Gozo Channel seems to have surfaced again. Those in favour of this tunnel are putting forward every thinkable reason to justify such a tunnel. Such justifications include the long waiting queues on both sides of the channel, the Gozo aging population, the lack of job oppportuity in Gozo, and also that residents do not want to rely on touristic income to live in Gozo.

2016.05.24 - tunnelling the cross

Photo: viewingmalta.com from The Times

One Gozitan businessman also said that the tunnel would be just another road as the one leading from Marsascala to Valletta. Furthermore, it was also said that the present ferries will be obsolete within 15 years time.

A feasibility study concluded in favour of the tunnel. Externalites, that is the hidden costs that society and the environmenet will have to pay, were not even mentioned, despite the fact that it was concluded that profits in millions would be achieved. Geological studies have not even been initiated. It seems that these are not important as long as it has been concluded that there would be a financial profit.

The geologist Dr Peter Gatt, has pointed out that the area is full of large and deep faults. He also added that it is not only difficult to tunnel through these unstudied faults, but this can also be dangerous to human life.

The maximum depth of water in the channel is estimated to be 30 metres. Excavation depth in the rock bottom, without the availability of geological studies, is estimated to be 70 metres, that is 100 metres below sea level. The openings of this undeground tunnel can lead to the Nadur lowlands on Gozo and Għadira on the mainland.

A number of questions not only have not been answered, but have not even been asked, such as:

How will the tunnel affect both islands from a social and environmental point of view?

Have studies, if any, shown the impact of excavations at the two ends of the tunnel, on the hydrology and agriculture of the areas?

How will the estimated meagre one to two million cubic metres of excavated material be disposed of, and what will be its social and ecological impacts?

How will the tunnel contribute to curb the Gozitan ageing population? Will it instead contribute to further increase it?

Have any studies been done to see if the tunnel will further attract Gozitan youths to spend the weekend on the mainland for entertaining purposes and thus contributing to further add to the exodus from Gozo?

How will the tunnel affect internal tourism? I remember that in the recent past, when there was the ferry service available after the operettas held in Gozo, the commercial entities complained because this affected the bed nights in Gozo because theater visitors could easily return home after the performance. The tunnel would make this possible 356 days a year.

How would the tunnel impact the number of bed nights taken by foreign tourists in Gozo?

A fast ferry service would be the best sustainable solution from a social, environmental and even economic point of view

Initial construction costs of the tunnel are estimated at €300 million, which can easily double, depending on the geological studies. What would be the additional cost with respect to maintenance, and other requisites, for the safety of commuters: for example extraction and injection of fresh air through the tunnel? And how would these increase the toll that commuters will have to pay to cross through the tunnel?

These financial, social and environmental expenses, with the added externalities, are needed for crossing just a 10km stretch of water, not taking into consideration other construction problems. One has also to keep in mind any arising problems during its running, such as traffic accidents or other unforeseen circumstances.

The traffic problems on both sides of the tunnel will not only remain the same as they are today, but there is the probability that these will be further accentuated. Unless of course additional millions are pumped in with further social and environmental hidden costs.

Without doubt, the present facilities to cross the channel are anything but customer friendly. BUT, the tunnel is not the sustainable solution.

The present ferry service contributes to a substantial part of the problem.

It has no competition at all to render it more friendly and adjusted to commuters’ requests and demands. It is a monopolistic service.

Such is the monopolistic management that if there is somebody who believes that he is more important than all the commuters waiting at both quays, he can call back the ferry which has just departed to accommodate him!

The waiting commuters can wait a little longer, be they workers, students, tourists or just common citizens. And the expenses incurred to build such a sustainable tunnel are not the way to control such a monopolistic service.

The ferries in use today were launched in the early 2000. During that time the demand was not as heavy as it is today. Following intensive, successful advertisements to visit Gozo, the demand increased by leaps and bounds, reaching the million mark today. But the number of ferries remained as it was originally, resulting in occasional delays and long queues. If the service were run on competitive lines, without any doubt the problem would not be so acute.

It is quite a relief to hear that a fast ferry service is an alternative to the tunnel. This fast service, besides shortening the time of crossing, can also take commuters, car and all, from Mġarr not only to Ċirkewwa, but also to Valletta, Sliema and any other planned destination on the mainland. This can be enhanced by the availablility of a shuttle bus service from the quay to various bus terminuses.

Such a fast ferry service would be the best sustainable solution from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. Not only so, but it can be faster for commuters, it will avoid time in traffic bottlenecks, it will ease the stress of commuters, it will contribute to the decrease of vehicular emissions, it can also be cheaper and daily commuters can leave their cars on the quay close to home. The tunnel does not address these benefits.

Obviously such a fast ferry service cannot be afforded monopolistic protection, or the problems will still persist.

Speakers, both Gozitans, for the two main parties are leading the front in favour of the tunnel. Only Alternattiva Demokratika is against. One of the former said that all Gozitans are in favour of the tunnel: the vociferous ones that is, but I do not believe that the silent majority are.

The other politician, from the other side of the fence, said that this is a Gozitan project which will benefit Gozitans, and that both parties will include it in their electoral manifesto. Does this mean that those who are against such a tunnel should not vote for the parties who are in favour? A Gozitan friend of mine who is against the tunnel, after hearing such comments on the air, told me that both parties have lost his vote.

The present tunnel vision is more like walking blindfolded searching for a presumed lost black cat in a dark tunnel, to the background music of counting machines.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

Further reading:

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/efficient-link-to-gozo/

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Taking the big ‘E’ out of MEPA

February 4, 2013

Alfred E. Baldacchino

One of the issues presently being discussed by political parties in the run up to the general election is the environment. The discussion centers round whether the environment should still form part of MEPA or be given more importance and autonomy than it has now (if it really has any).

The Nationalist Party, which in 2002 masterminded the merger (some still refer to it as a ‘hijack’) of the Environment with the Planning Authority, had also promised that the environment would be one of its main three pillars. In its latest electoral manifesto it is now promising a new Nature Agency to be responsible for the protection of biodiversity and the managing and conservation of protected areas, parks and natural reserves.

The Labour Party is promising that it will separate again the Environment Directorate from the Planning Directorate and include it with the Malta Resource Authority.

Alternative Democratic too is not happy with the present MEPA setup and is also suggesting that the Environment Directorate and the Planning Directorate should both be accountable to the Malta Resource Authority, with the Environment Directorate having a more leading role than the other one.

All three parties basically are in agreement that as far as the environment is concerned MEPA has not delivered following the merger of  Environment and Planning.

Having, in the past, worked both with the former Environment Department since its inception, under the responsibility of five different Ministers and one Parliamentary Secretary (indeed those were the days), and later when Environment was ‘merged’ with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, I am more than convinced that such a ‘merger’ is more like a square peg in a round hole.

Given the Government’s ‘environmental pillar’ promise  and the justifications given for such a merger, one would have expected that the environment would be second to none and it would be an example on how to manage and administer the environment. But Environmental issues are today fragmented: biodiversity, water resources, climate change, air pollution, etc. Each political incumbent guards his little patch without any coordination, irrespective of national economical, social or ecological repercussions. On a  positive side a number of nicely coloured reports and guidelines have been published. On paper everything is nice and rosy. BUT some of these are simply being ignored by government itself. Tangible actions taken include: the endangering of Natura 2000 sites, such as Buskett, Dwejra, and Mistra; and Nadur Cemetery, to mention just a few. Refusal by the Environment arm of MEPA was recommended for such developments but all boasted or still boast a MEPA permit! Trees forming ecological niches have been, and still are,  uprooted to create “gardens”! The scarce resource of water, instead of being harvested as legally and conscientiously obliged, is being channeled to the sea,  while important  legal regulations for harvesting water have recently been revoked. There is not one single qualified environmentalist with voting powers on the MEPA 15-­member Board. The cherry on the cake was the disbanding of the National Commission for Sustainable Development. This is the vision and the attention the environment is being given today.

Most of what had been established and built over the years by the previous  Environment Department was literally dismantled when the environment became a directorate within MEPA.  I did point all this to the Prime Minister at one of the public discussions at Castile, but I was bluntly told that the merger of the Environment and Planning was a Cabinet decision.

Those environment entities and individuals who have or are involved in the communication, conservation and public awareness of the environment cannot be blamed for being disillusioned, angry, exploited, and emarginated, while being called names for their constructive  criticism and comments in the national interest. I cannot help feel that MEPA, despite national and interntional obligations,  is more a Maltese Exploiter of Public Assets: that is  the important national resources, whether biological (fauna and flora) or physical (land, water, air). It is high time that MEPA is professionally pruned down to size, though not as brutally as government prunes urban trees;  some of the middle management embraces some of the best qualified personnel on the island.  One of the necessary measures for the environment to flourish in the national interest is to graft the environment within the Malta Resource Authority.

Following the last election, MEPA has undergone the promised reform. In 2008  I did question whether such reform will  result in just a change in colour of the sheep’s clothing! No, it did not change the colour of the sheep’s clothing, but it did change the sheep into a lamb, and tethered it in the lion’s den.

Sadly, today the environment is like a ship without a rudder, and without a captain, exposed to brutal elements and high seas, wandering where the wind blows…  and the wind is always blowing from the direction of the development- orientated Planning Directorate. Undoubtedly there is no place for the  in MEPA. It has made a mess of it.

All such thoughts were expressed in one of my articles in the Times dated 22 April 2008, which is attached below.

times

Tuesday, 22nd April 2008

Mepa: The missing link
Alfred E. Baldacchino

Without any doubt, Malta needs an authority, better still authorities, responsible for environment and planning so that the interests of the Maltese community are safeguarded from exploitation and Malta’s international responsibilities are honoured.

A professional authority will also help Malta to mature and to find its rightful place with other nations in the international sphere. However, such an entity has to have a vision, a direction and an understanding of its obligations. It has to have a will to achieve these aims. From the ever-increasing public criticism and the irregularities that are continuously being uncovered, it seems that Mepa is not exactly in line with such a vision, such understanding and such accountability to the Maltese community. It lacks such fervour.

Ironically enough, such a blot on Mepa’s image started with the “merger” of the minuscule Department of the Environment and the mammoth Planning Authority in 2002. Such a “merger”, which carried with it heavy international environmental responsibilities, mainly as a member state of the European Union, was an onus which the top brass at the Planning Authority were never au courant with. They were not equipped with the technical and scientific background to handle it. And I am afraid to say that the majority of Mepa boards still aren’t. Nonetheless, Mepa is the competent authority for the EU
environmental acquis.

The cracks became chasms as time passed by, especially when the new Environment Protection Directorate was left without a director for about four years, leaving the headless directorate to wander in a rather hostile environment. Words, which still reverberate in my ears (for example: Forget the environment, it is development which dictates the environment here; we do not need scientists, we need geographers; why worry if an endemic lizard becomes extinct, it is just a lizard), uttered in the corridors of Mepa do not do any credit to a supposedly competent authority on the environment. To this day I still cherish with increasing satisfaction the names that were bestowed on the Environment Protection Directorate: “environmentalists”, “fundamentalists” and “officials who lose precious time playing with marine turtles, dolphins and wild flowers”. These are all responsibilities and obligations arising out of Malta’s accession to the European Union, and other international legal treaties, for which this blessed Mepa is the competent authority, and the non-adherence to which amounts to EU and other
international infringements.

This “us and them” complex within Mepa is resulting in a rift that contributes to discontent and loss of motivation in the dedicated staff who do not feel that they belong to such an important but divided organisation. Some have left because of this syndrome. This has rendered the authority much weaker in the face of the ever-increasing and more specialised international obligations, not least those of the EU. Stephen Farrugia, a former director of planning at Mepa, wrote (The Times, April 10): “It is pertinent to point out that the previous Environment Protection Department and the Planning Authority
empires have always been to a greater or lesser extent in continual turf wars with each other. This situation, that still persists within Mepa, is to me one of the great demotivators in sustaining healthy working relationships between the two directorates”.

The “merging” of the Environment Protection Department with the Planning Authority was a mistake: the two are not compatible and those who argue in favour of such “merger” do so because it is easier to manipulate the scientific reports of those who are considered as an appendix. When the mentality of such a competent authority stoops so low in its environmental “lack of knowledge” (and the above are just a few simple examples) then it is no wonder that the Environmental Protection Directorate has been reduced to the Cinderella of Mepa, dictated by Planning Authority officials who have no scientific or environmental management and planning qualifications, with the exception of the odd one or two. If it weren’t for, or what is left of, the hard work of the dedicated professional and scientific staff previously forming the backbone of the Environment Protection Department, the list of eventual infractions of the EU environmental acquis would be much, much longer.

This unfortunate situation was recently validated in a concrete way (pardon the pun). The lack of awareness of Mepa’s obligations, both national and international, led to the approval by Mepa of development applications in Special Areas of Conservation for which Mepa itself is the competent authority on an international level. These permits infringe the EU Habitats Directive, which lays down clear obligations with regard to developments in Special Areas of Conservation, such as those in Dwejra, Gozo and Mistra Bay.
Mepa may have the best qualified middle management personnel in the country. But the lack of an equivalent qualified professional and scientific top brass sitting in the top echelons of Mepa boards and committees reinforces Bjorn Bonello’s (another ex-Mepa employee) comments on Mepa (The Times, March 27) and “displays blatant mockery of the planning system and the people’s intelligence” besides frustrating the technical and scientific staff. Furthermore, if Mepa still regards itself as the competent authority of the EU environmental acquis, its top echelons have to be closely familiar with Malta’s
international obligations and responsibilities, the more so when their decisions carry with them financial and political implications at EU level. Hijacking the Environment Protection Directorate makes the crisis more acute and can only benefit one or two individuals before the community is asked to dig deep into its pocket.

I feel morally obliged to write this, not only to distance myself from such obscenities, which are having an irreversible negative impact on the environment and on dedicated technical and scientific officials within Mepa, but also to give weight to the Prime Minister’s declaration on the need to reform Mepa, which declaration is also one of the Nationalist Party’s electoral
pledges. The Mepa reform has to take in consideration the engagement of scientific professionals among its top brass. The Environment Planning Directorate’s voice has got to be heard and be equally as strong as that of the Planning Directorate and not be stifled, silenced or ignored. It will then be possible for the professionals and scientists sitting on Mepa’s boards
and committees to be able to conscientiously evaluate and pass judgement, instead of branding the scientific input as “the work of fundamentalists”.
Everybody who has the good of the country at heart eagerly awaits such an urgent reform in the hope that, when all the comments have been taken on board, it will not result in just a change in colour of the sheep’s clothing.

Mr Baldacchino has been involved in the protection of biodiversity since 1970, both with local and foreign NGOs and also as a civil servant for more than 30 years, mainly occupying managerial positions within the Department of Environment. For the last five years before retirement he was assistant director at the Environment Protection Directorate, Mepa.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

Comments

B Agius (9 hours,  39 minutes ago)
It is not enough to have professional people as top brass in any Government institution if they can also perform functions outside the public service as consultants and/or in their own private practice.To the extent this is allowed to happen in Malta it will always contribute to a Public Service open to corruption or at least conflict of interest. Any Government job should be paid
highly enough for the Government to expect, by law, that those on its books don’t do anything else! This should also apply to all elected politicians.

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20080422/opinion/mepa-the-missing-link.205125