The time for the green itch

November 5, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The time for the green itch

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Every five years or so there is an itch in the air – a political itch – that intensifies at the eleventh hour. The environment is not immune to this five-year itch. In fact, the last environmental itch centred around an environmental pillar. What a noble idea, I thought! But when the itch subsided, the mass media was inundated with criticism regarding official decisions and actions not exactly having the environmental-pillar base.

These included: the discharge of treated sewage water in the sea, declared as having “no economic value”; mismanagement of Natura 2000 sites, declaring part of Dwejra “to be just bare rocks”, building adjacent to a freshwater stream of EU importance; Buskett saved by the skin of its teeth from being turned into a public garden; planting and covering substantial areas with declared invasive imported species, despite international obligations and recommendations by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority; channelling scarce resource of rainwater along roads to the sea; compliance certificates issued to buildings that do not conform to the legal requirements that each should have a cistern of a capacity of at least three cubic metres for every five square metres of the floor surface of each room; over-extraction of the already precarious groundwater; disbanding the National Sustainable Development Commission; opposing an EU proposal for the listing of the bluefin tuna on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; permitting buildings that make it impossible for neighbours to tap solar energy; negative impact of black dust politically regarded as an alien phenomenon; “cleaning” valleys by bulldozing their ecosystems… Space does not permit me to go on.

The virtual environmental-pillar was knocked out flat by the commercially-driven economic-pillar. It was not strong enough to withstand the official onslaught by those who have a collective responsibility to defend it. The environmental pillar is now dead and buried under commercially-driven decisions, perhaps at Wied il-Qasab Nadur cemetery.

Now it is time for a new itch: the green itch time. A draft National Environment Policy has been published for public consultation. What a noble idea, I think! The draft in hand encompasses legal international environmental concepts and principles, the great majority of which are already transposed in national legislation. These are juxtaposed in a colourful mosaic but, unfortunately, like all mosaics, hairline cracks abound, which, with some political acumen, can easily develop into loopholes. Some are already evident.

Such an essential document does not even have definitions of important concepts like “sustainable development”, “environment” or “precautionary principle”. International environmental legal obligations all have such definitions but do the political players have the same definitions in mind?

Some important concepts have also been mishandled. Can an environment policy disregard biodiversity as a resource? I cannot image that such omission is meant to cover the government’s stand against the listing of the bluefin tuna, an endangered international natural resource! The draft NEP lists a number of measures, all of which can definitely contribute to the sustainable use of the environment, though one comment betrays an inferiority complex.

Besides, a number of measures cannot be implemented within this legislature. Considering that some could be sitting on different seats, not necessarily of a different colour, following a musical chairs festival, one cannot exclude the possibility that such a policy will not necessarily be handled with care. The more so when some colleagues in the corridors of power do ignore national environment legislation, published over the signature of the Prime Minister himself. And the competent authority responsible for environment legislation habitually stands and stares, licking its wounds and cursing its impotency to take action.

I do, however, admire the tenacity and drive of Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco but I cannot help feel that he is a lonely voice in a political wilderness, abandoned even by his environmental watchdog. A few days ago, another colourful environment document metamorphosed. This spelled guidelines for controlling alien species. A much-needed effort, though it retrospectively tackles negative economic, social and ecological impacts of introduced alien species and does not address the cause. They seem more like guidelines on how to control horses that have bolted after housing them in stables without doors.

This is why I have become very allergic to nicely-coloured printed documents that undoubtedly are attractive to the illiterate. Could be because I have not yet recovered from the decision to disband the National Sustainable Development Commission, flavoured by the now popular political dictum that one should not be judged by what one says but by what one does. These do not help at all to dispel any of my fears.

The eleventh hour is nigh. When the clock strikes one, will the environment policy slowly, silently, diplomatically, slide down in repose on the shelves of history, like the National Sustainable Development Commission did after all? National environmental legislation has been brushed aside; an environmental-pillar has been laid to rest; why not a policy? I am wishing, hoping and praying that I am wrong but I fear that Greenwich time will prove me right.

Advertisements

Illegal brick wall on the Rabat road

September 13, 2011

Following my contribution to The Times on the 26th August 2011,  MEPA has officially replied on 6th September 2011, confirming all the illegalities mentioned in my contribution.  My initial reply is also attached. May be interesting to readers.  I am attaching both the link to the MEPA’s letter, which is self explanatory,  and also a copy of the letter itself and the subsequent comments by readers.

I am attaching some photos  as a reminder of the illegalities which had to be corrected by the 7th September 2011, according to MEPA’s  enforcement notice (ECF 434/11) to Transport Malta.  Besides, according to MEPA, this would also show that my assertion that MEPA “like pale melancholy, sits retired, staring and ruminating its impotency to control the mauling of environmental and public assets” is wrong.

Blatant infringement of the Trees and Woodland Protection Regulations published on 24 ta’ May, 2011, over the signature of the Prime Minister, the Minster responsible for the Environment.

The brutal pruning of the protected Aleppo Pine, which could only have been carried out by approval from the Minister of Rural Affairs and the Minster for the Environmnet.

How the rubble wall protection regulations was brought to disrepute for one and all to see

When protected national heritage meets financial considerations and political decisions - despite the 'high level' of responsibility given to 'sustainable development'

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110906/letters/Illegal-brick-wall-on-the-Rabat-road.383498

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 

Peter Gingell, communications manager,

Malta Environment and Planning Authority, Floriana

Illegal brick wall on the Rabat road

I refer to the article Trees, Rubble Walls And BSS (Alfred E. Baldacchino, August 26). Mr Baldacchino highlights the incident whereby works carried out during the construction of a new bus interchange facility, along the Rabat road near Ta’ Qali, resulted in a rural rubble wall being demolished and replaced by a brick wall, while concrete was shoddily laid around a number of Aleppo trees. Mr Baldacchino uses this incident to assert that the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, “like pale melancholy, sits retired, staring and ruminating its impotency to control the mauling of environmental and public assets”.

Contrary to the negative impression Mr Baldacchino tries to create for readers, the authority can confirm that on August 23, a few days before Mr Baldacchino’s article was published, Mepa had already issued an enforcement notice (ECF 434/11) against Transport Malta for having illegally demolished a protected rural rubble wall and replaced it with a brick wall. The authority also requested Transport Malta to remove the concrete from around the circumference of the affected tree trunks and under supervision, construct a “konka” to allow for better water percolation.

The authority has given Transport Malta up to 15 days to remove the illegality, following which Mepa may then take direct action. The Enforcement Directorate and the Environment Protection Directorate are monitoring closely the situation and inspected the site again last week. If, for Mr Baldacchino, the authority has been caught sitting “retired” and “staring”, then he is mistaken.

While the authority continues to do its utmost to ensure the implementation and enforcement of planning and environment regulations, it reminds the public and all government entities that we all bear shared responsibility in safeguarding our natural and built heritage.

5 Comments

Mr Tony Camilleri

Today, 12:13

Would anyone blame the people who think rightly or wrongly that corruption is rampant in MEPA?

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Today, 10:35

Indeed I am greatly obliged to MEPA for proving me right all along. MEPA has finally found its voice, 11 days after my article (26th August) saying it acted on the 23rd August, but found it only convenient to inform the public today.  15 days from August 23rd is September 7th: in two days time. MEPA will be hearing from me again, no doubt about it.

MEPA also felt offended when I said that it “like pale melancholy, sits retired, staring and ruminating its impotency to control the mauling of environmental and public assets”.  Such works should not have taken place in the first place, and not accomplished before MEPA acted and gave 15 days to the Transport Authority to correct illegalities, after which MEPA MAY consider taking action.

Thanks also to MEP for stressing that “all governemnt entities ..bear shared responsibility in safeguarding our natural and built heritage” This has been my contention all along.  Now MEPA is under the portfolio of the Prime Minister who was the chairman of the National Commission for Sustainable Development.” If MEPA does ‘not sit retired’ it could easily have whispered in the PM’s ears about the utiliy of such commission, before it was idle since 2006, and disbanded in 2008.

Let us wait for 7th Sepotember, 15 days given in the enforcement notice (ECF 434/11). to see if MEPA is “like pale melancholy, sits retired, staring and ruminating its impotency to control the mauling of environmental and public assets”.

PS – with reference to the ‘konka’ in MEPA’s letter, in Englsih this is referred to as a watering trench or watering well. A good Maltese dictionary can tell you this.

Bernard Storace

Today, 09:34

“The authority has given TransportMaltaup to 15 days to remove the illegality, following which Mepa may then take direct action”. MEPA ‘may’ take direct action, How? by turning the clock back. It’s never been done before and I believe will not be done now too.

What, no guts to stick up to the minister in charge. Action should be taken BEFORE and not after the crime against nature has taken place. Will the rubble wall be rebuilt? I doubt it very much and as usual the illegal stone wall will be sanctioned and more trees will die too. Another joke or what?

Alfred E. Zahra

Today, 16:08

If you or I want to get rid of a rubble wall or a tree, how can MEPA stop us? Not unless we are stupid enough to inform it of our plans beforehand. Mepa unfortunately is not like Joseph Muscat. It does not have Godly powers.

Mr Peter Murray

Today, 09:12

What hope do we have when governmental entity fail to obey the law or take the appropriate action when found out and ordered to take remedial action.Yet again we have Mr.Gingell only responding to complaints/concerns expressed via newspaper publications, yet seldom, if ever, to complaints lodged individually with his


Trees, rubble walls and BSS

August 26, 2011

August 26, 2011

Trees, rubble walls and BSS

Alfred E. Baldacchino

A few weeks ago, workmen were laying out a pavement on either side of the Rabat road near the Ta’ Qali intersection. A layby for the new buses, I thought! And so it was.

Little thought, if any, was given either to the Aleppo pine trees and the rubble walls along the stretches of the new pavement. The Aleppo pines, which characterise this stretch of road leading to Rabat, show a number of scars, now including fresh ones, resulting from mismanagement. Some of the trees are completely engulfed in concrete, some with nails hammered in them, further sealing their miserable fate at the hands of unsustainable mismanagement of the living natural heritage.

Blatant infringement of the Trees and Woodland Protection Regulations published on 24 ta’ May, 2011, over the signature of the Prime Minister, the Minster responsible for the Environment.

In the same stretch, part of the rubble walls were also heavily damaged! In an ingeneous, indigenous way, a brick wall was built on the rubble wall. As I slowed in the traffic to clear the roundabout intersecting the Żebbuġ, Mtarfa and Rabat roads – the one where sprinklers usually water much of the road as much as they water the turf – I could not help think and ask myself how the lack of coordination between ministries reigns supreme in this land.

A 'newly restored rubble wall' . What about the regulations for the protection of rubble walls? Well that is the responsibility of the Minster for the Environment and not of the Minister responsible for such works!

A couple of weeks ago, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority declared new tree protection areas. In the same legal notice (200 of 2011), signed by the Prime Minister himself, there are two schedules of protected trees. The Aleppo pine trees along Rabat road are listed in schedule II. They are more than 50 years old and are growing in an outside development zone area.

The brutal fresh pruning of the protected Aleppo Pine, which could only have been carried out by approval from the Minister of Rural Affairs and the Minster for the Environmnet.

Schedule II trees are protected to the extent that no person shall bury in the ground, dump, or deposit, any soil, manure, waste, rubbish, stones, rubble, scrap metal or any refuse near them; not even attempt to. Mepa is responsible for the administration, implementation and enforcement of these regulations.

How the rubble wall protection regulations were brought to disrepute for one and all to see

Legal Notice 160 of 1997 protects rubble walls and non-habitable rural structures in view of their historical and architectural importance, their exceptional beauty, their affording a habitat for flora and fauna and their vital importance in the conservation of the soil and of water. It is unlawful to demolish them or to prevent free percolation of rainwater through rubble walls or to undermine the foundations of a rural construction.
The regulations add that no permit is required for sensitively executed repairs, provided that repairs are carried out using exclusively the same type of drystone rubble walling that composed the existing wall and that they do not significantly modify the overall profile or character of the wall. Again, Mepa is responsible for the administration, implementation and enforcement of these regulations.
Now, somebody in the corridors of power in this EU member state must be responsible for such works, unless, of course, someone convinces me that there is only a virtual government. The minister responsible for the environment cannot be held directly responsible for the works done but is directly responsible to ensure that environmental policies, laws and regulations are adhered to. He has a very expensive watchdog to see to this but it seems this watchdog is all bark and no bite.
The minister has the authority to direct in no uncertain way that the duty to protect the environment is not just his but is a collective political responsibility. As chairman of the National Sustainable Development Commission he has all the tools to do so. Unfortunately, as I finalised this article, I read in The Times that “Just before Parliament rose for the summer recess, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who is responsible for environment matters, confirmed that the National Sustainable Development Commission was disbanded in 2008 after the government approved the sustainable development strategy”. And this despite national and EU obligations! Yet, we are also told that “the government puts responsibility for sustainable development at the ‘highest level’”.

When protected national heritage meets financial consideration and political decisions - despite the 'high level' or responsibility given to 'sustainable development'

What is the use of drafting regulations and national environment policies when some Cabinet colleagues and their staff are immune to the laws of the land? In the meantime, the watchdog, Mepa, like pale melancholy, sits retired, staring and ruminating its impotency to control the mauling of environmental and public assets.
I would not be surprised if I am taken to task by some colour-blinkered pen pusher on grounds that this is a trivial matter. Admittedly, I am not writing on the building of a new power station but the same concept, the same perception and the same vision (or lack of it) apply to both examples. First, go ahead with the development and, then, consider the regulations and see if there are any necessary permits to acquire. In the meantime, tell the gullible this is highest level of sustainable development at its best.

The long and winding road for protected trees in the Maltese Islands.

The Bisazza Street Syndrome (BSS) is rearing its ugly head – one legislates, another ignores. If BSS is not taken by the horns and immediately put in check, it will soon become the national environmental policy without any need for public consultations and without any need for backup legislation.
I can image that the picture of sustainable development to be submitted at the next UN Rio +20 conference in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rio earth summit will be all nice and rosy: Malta puts responsibilty for sustianable development at the highest level while disbanding the commission to ensure that sustainable development is achieved.
Other photos taken on 24th Augut 2011, showing the complete desregard for protected trees, and protected rubble walls, despite the fresh declaration that “the government puts responsibility for sustainable development at the ‘highest level’”

According to Maltese politicians and their advisors, this is a tree - a protected tree!

Politically, to the applause of the gullible, it was the tree's fault moving in the bulldozer's path!

The dead branches of a mauled potected Aleppo Pine tree. Only possible with a permit from the Minster for the Environment and the Minster for Resources and Rural Affairs!

NO COMMENT - readers may wish to comment themselves.

One of the ARRIVA bus stops in the stretch of the new works. With the arrival of the new bus service, social, environmental and financial negative impacts have also arrived, though as I understand, some are still waiting for the buses.


E is for Environment

August 8, 2011

Maltatoday, Sunday 7th August, 2011

E is for Environment ___________________________________________________________________________________ Despite occasional improvements, Malta’s environmental standards remain below expectations raised by EU accession. ALFRED E. BALDACCHINO, the man who was involved in the transposition of the acquis communautaire into Maltese law, offers an insight into why. ___________________________________________________________________________________

As environmentalists go, few can lay claim to the epithet ‘tree-hugger’ quite as convincingly as Alfred E. Baldacchino. An author of numerous books on Malta’s indigenous wildlife (and biodiversity in general), his very name is now practically synonymous with all matters arboreal. More significantly still, he is often heard on the radio, where he discusses the regular ‘massacre’ of roadside trees in the name of ‘pruning’ and ‘landscaping’… as well as what appears to be our national predilection for choosing the species most unsuited to our islands’ particular ecosystem.

I meet Baldacchino at his Attard home, and I am soon introduced to his private collection of indigenous Maltese saplings – all taken from seeds and cuttings, and grown in pots on a small and crowded verandah. As he talks me through the different species, it quickly becomes apparent that behind his regular complaints about our national treatment of trees and plants, there lies a deeper and altogether more pressing concern with the lack of comprehensive planning and co-ordination: a state of affairs affecting our country’s entire attitude towards all aspects of the environment, with results that can be seen all around us.

Back on the terrace, he points to a specimen of Fraxinus angustifolia (Fraxxnu in Maltese) on his terrace. “If I can grow this from a seed here in my own home – and believe me, I am no expert in cultivation – why can’t we do the same elsewhere? Why do we have to import harmful and invasive species, sometimes spreading diseases and unwanted alien pests like the red palm weevil, when we can invest the same energy into preserving our own natural biodiversity?”

He promptly answers his own question: because commercial interests have meanwhile overtaken all other considerations… including our country’s legal and moral obligations to manage and protect the environment. As an example he turns to his hobbyhorse: environmental landscaping.

“Just this morning I talked about this on the radio, and I was surprised by the reaction: some 12 phone-calls throughout the programme… of which only one was critical, accusing me of being ‘too negative’.” Baldacchino’s point on that programme (of which I had caught snatches while driving) was that pruning of trees – which used to be carried out under the auspices of the Agriculture Department, but has now been farmed out to the private sector – is now being done at the wrong time of the year, and in a slapdash way that reduces many of the trees concerned to mere stumps.

“Just a few moths ago, the trees outside my own home were being ‘pruned’ (or rather, ‘hewn’) and when I popped my head out of the balcony and asked the landscapers why they were doing this now – and more to the point why they were chopping them down to the trunk – they replied ‘because cars pass from here’. What sort of answer is that? Did cars suddenly start passing this way only now…?”

Baldacchino suspects the reason is another: that the job of environmental landscaping has since been taken over by a ‘public private partnership’, or ‘PPP’. “If you ask me, it more like ‘Pee Pee Pee’,” he says… spelling out the ‘double-E’ each time. “The problem is that private concerns like these are driven by commercial interests, and commercial interests that simply do not mix with environmental protection.” For instance, Baldacchino argues that landscapers have taken to using herbicides on roundabouts and pathways. “Not a good idea,” he intones. “These herbicides will be washed away by the rain, only to find their way into valleys and possible reach the watertable. Why is this being allowed to happen? Why isn’t MEPA coming down like a tonne of bricks?”

Even the choice of plants and flowers for these roundabout displays is at best questionable. “Recently, the Prime Minister was on TV talking about government investment in embellishment projects. He was saying things like: ‘when did we ever see so many flowers blooming in August, when it is normally dry as dust?’ Personally I don’t blame the PM himself for saying things like that, but somebody should really tell him that this sort of landscaping goes against his own environmental credentials. These take substantial amount of precious water, especially those laid out with turf. Their temporary aesthetic impact carries hidden costs carried by society.…” Baldacchino explains that ‘alien’ flowers like (for instance) petunias tend to guzzle enormous amounts of water – itself a precious resource that the country can ill-afford to waste – and some species also have the potential to ‘escape’ and take root elsewhere in the wild. “Some of the plants used have microscopic seeds that get easily blown about by the currents as cars drive past, or carried by the wind, washed away by the rain, and so on. It is easy for them to end up germinating in a valley somewhere. What happens if they start to spread? They will become an invasive species, competing with other indigenous plants and ultimately become a threat toMalta’s natural biodiversity.” Some established invasives include the south and Central American Nasturtium, and the south African Hottentot Fig, the latter also used in landscaping.

Baldacchino points towards the profit margins of the private companies involved in the partnership as the main reason for both the use of herbicides, and the inauspicious choice of flowers. The reasoning is one we have all heard before, perhaps in relation to other issues and scenarios: ‘someone’ will be importing a certain type of herbicide, or a certain type of plant… “None of this is necessary,” Baldacchino asserts. “This is the result of having lost our way when it comes to environmental issues.”

But we have raced ahead of ourselves. Part of the reason I came here was to talk about these issues, true; but I also wanted to ask for a historical perspective on what exactly went awry. Baldacchino has after all been involved in the country’s environmental sector…  having kick-started the government’s environmental department in the early 1980s. At that time, the environment fell loosely under the portfolio of Health Minister Vincent Moran… though Baldacchino doesn’t count Moran as one of Malta’s environment ministers, for the simple reason that the word ‘environment’ had yet to achieve practical relevance back then. It was only later – and very gradually – that the concept began to take root in Malta’s subconscious, slowly rising to become a major concern. “Since the 1980s I have worked under six ministers and one parliamentary secretary,” Baldacchino recalls: adding the curious detail that three of them (apart from Moran) were doctors –Daniel Micallef, Stanley Zammit and George Vella. “Doctors make good environment ministers,” he asserts. “I think it’s partly to do with their scientific academic background, and also their charisma with people as doctors. In fact it was with Daniel Micallef that environmental awareness began to take off; and things reached a peak with Stanley Zammit, who had by far the longest time to deliver.”

Baldacchino also acknowledges the input of lawyers who took over the portfolio – namely Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Francis Zammit Dimech – considering that by their time Malta had to face the voluminous legal international obligations including those of the EU. He was less enthusiastic about role of architect ministers who came in their wake. “Doctors immediately grasped the scientific concept of environmental conservation, while the legal aspect was also quickly picked up by lawyers… But something that took maybe five minutes to explain to the doctors, would take up to five hours with the lawyers…” As for the architects, Baldacchino makes an exception for Michael Falzon, who had the benefit of being helped by Stanley Zammit as his parliamentary secretary. I point out that this leaves us with only one architect who was also environment minister – George Pullicino, with whom Baldacchino had a very public and very acrimonious fall-out. However, he had no intention of being drawn into a discussion about that difference – which erupted after his retirement from the Environment Protection Directorate.

Instead we talked about what he defines as the two ‘fatal errors’ that have undermined previous efforts to create a functional environmental protection regime. “Initially, all the people involved in the department were chosen on the strength of their scientific background. Despite the paucity of human resources, we had the best available people. We needed them, too. Back then we were screening Maltese legislation with a view to transposing the EU’s acquis communautaire: a massive job and we had problems – big problems – at the beginning. But we also had a wealth of highly scientifically qualified and motivated people, enabling the department to be professionally run at the time.”

And then, out of the blue… the catastrophe. Baldacchino explains how the government suddenly decided to strip the environment of its own ministry, and instead transfer it lock, stock and barrel to the Planning Authority. “I think I was as surprised as Minister Zammit Dimech at the time,” Baldacchino recalls, referring to the decision as an environmental disaster from which the country has never fully recovered. “We were like a round peg in a square hole. Suddenly, decisions started being taken without any consideration or even idea of the country’s legal international obligations. Scientific and technical expertise was put aside in favour of other, more commercial considerations. From that point on, we started heading downhill.”

Baldacchino observes that – with the exception of occasional improvements – the trajectory has remained downhill ever since, in part thanks to a second and equally damning mishap. “The second major mistake was to allow the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC) to fizzle out. Whether intentionally, or through ignorance, or out of our national tendency to simply ‘postpone’ problems for future generations, the commission was never set in motion …” Originally set up in 2002 – significantly, before the decision to rob the environment of a ministry of its own – the NSDC initially aimed to provide an umbrella organization to integrate and amalgamate all economic, social and environmental considerations. “It has been years since the Commission last met,” Baldacchino says in regretful tones. “Today, decisions which have huge impact on the environment are taken in the absence of any framework organization. Development planning has hijacked all other considerations.”

Baldacchino argues that we are literally paying a high price due to the lack of any clear planning strategy… as an example, he singles out Malta’s policy regarding water. “The Knights of St John handed everything to us on a silver platter. They left us an entire aqueduct and water storing system, and more importantly they had drawn up laws whereby all houses had to have their own wells.” He points out that technically, these laws are still in the statue books. “But are they being implemented? No. Today, MEPA merely issues compliance certificates in cases where houses are illegally built without wells. And just look at the homes we are building: any space for reservoirs is today taken up by garages instead.” Ironically, then, it seems that Maltawas more conscious of water conservation 500 years ago … despite the fact that population pressures, coupled with the demands of a thirsty tourism industry, have resulted in skyrocketing water demands.

From this perspective, environmentalists like Baldacchino were ‘scandalised’ to hear Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt cavalierly announcing that excess water produced by sewage treatment would be pumped into the sea because it “had no economic value”. “No economic value? That’s blasphemy. What economic value is there is throwing away 50% pure water, when only a few metres away we have Reverse Osmosis plants pumping up 100% concentrated water from the sea? Considering how much we are paying for water produced in this way, can we afford to throw away water that would actually cost us less? So much for economic value…”

Baldacchino argues that the whole system was geared up from the outset with a view to pumping the water into the sea. No thought was given to the possibility of re-utilising that precious resource, “How else do you explain that all the country’s sewage treatment plants were sited near the sea to begin with?”

All this is symptomatic of a system which has fallen apart at the seams – almost an inevitability, Baldacchino suggests, when one considers how the environment itself was divorced from its original ministry, and instead spread among different entities, all of which work independently of one another without any cohesive framework policy. Again, water provides a good example; being a resource which falls under no fewer than three separate ministries. “MEPA is responsible for Malta’s surface water policy, and this falls under the office of the Prime Minister. But the Water Services Corporation – which handles distribution of water – falls under the Finance Ministry, whereas groundwater extraction, among others, falls under the MRRA.” So who takes ultimate responsibility for water-related problems when they arise? Baldacchino suggests the answer, as things stand, is ‘nobody’… coming back to his earlier point that the current set-up encourages government to put off existing problems, leaving future generations to cope with them as best they can.

“It’s a little like what happened with Bisazza Street, but on a national scale,” he remarks. “In the case of Bisazza Street, we had one ministry planning for pedestrianisation, and another ministry planning for traffic, and they only realized there was a problem when the two came together. Why? How is this possible? But at least,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, “in the case of Bisazza street, a few ‘heads’ did actually roll…”


Cabinet ownership of the environment

October 7, 2010

Thursday, 7th October 2010

Cabinet ownership of the environment

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The first consultation phase of the National Environment Policy (NEP) held on September 17 was indeed an opportunity for stakeholders to air their differences.  The concept of the policy, the discussions and the opportunity of rubbing of shoulders was also of great help.  Such a “conflict” of ideas can only contribute to more healthy, holistic and strong decisions.

Without any doubt, the opening speech by Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco was indeed a breath of fresh air.  It was a genuine speech with a vision, reaching out for support so that the NEP “can be built on the wide consensus”, an approach so much lacking during the last couple of years. Considering that Dr de Marco is a newcomer to these responsibilities, his introduction to the subject is even more welcomed.

The number of stakeholders present, who did not disappear after lunch, is one observation that shows the strong prevailing interest in the environment. Their input, comments, suggestions and constructive criticism, both during the various workshops and the plenary, are all valid.  Even when Dr de Marco’s body language showed he was a bit hot under the collar, nobody was called any names, despite the fact that some comments and criticism did not sound music to the government’s ears.

Another strong conclusion surfacing from both the workshops and the plenary was the fact that the report is compartmentalised and fragmented. There is need for a much more holistic approach and strategy. The official side (through no fault of its own) lacks the experience and some the complete knowledge of the subject matter, so obvious when faced with comments and questions from the gathering. This is the obvious result of the way the environmental set-up was mishandled over the last years when experienced personnel left disheartened, others fell by the wayside and others are marking time for better days. This is not going to be solved by such a NEP.

To make matters worse for the official side, many experienced personnel are either derided or emarginated, thus making the official side much more weak and denuded in terms of in-depth knowledge of the subject, to the extent that one is not blamed for asking whether this is part of the strategy. The rumblings of the effectiveness of such a fragmented NEP can be gauged by keeping one’s ears to the ground.

Another glaring observation was the conspicuous involvement of some NGOs or quangos, either because they were completely absent or because they preferred to act as wall flowers or as silent as a grave. Some representatives of environmental, legal, academic, trade unionist, religious, commercial and other entities, together with those of various ministries and departments, did not utter a word.  And the participants present could not comment on such entities’ views. This may also lead one to think that such entities, especially ministries and government departments, are either not interested or not concerned once this is the responsibility of the minster under whose umbrella the environment falls, that is the Prime Minister.

The above observation was also echoed both within the working groups and also in the plenary. This could also be concluded by the awkward position of the official side, at times at sixes and sevens, especially when faced with comments and questions on negative environmental impacts resulting from other ministers’ decisions and undertaking and for which the minister overseeing the environment is responsible to enforce, control or report to Brussels from where such national obligations arise.

One particular question constantly asked is why embark on a NEP when there is the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC), chaired by the Prime Minister himself, and incorporating all ministries. Admittedly the NCDC has been dormant for the past three years. Embarking on a separate isolated, fragmented NEP is laudable but its implementation is a failure from the word go. This is just a waste of time and resources and only contributes to procrastination in implementation.

The Prime Minster only needs to give the kiss of life to the NSDC and set it in motion to implement such a task.  Only this can restore the official handling of the environment to its 2004 credible level.

I do not think it is either just or fair to lump all the environmental responsibilities on a junior minister while some of his senior colleagues either do not bother or do not feel the collective responsibility of environmental matters and may also conveniently believe that this is the responsibility of the minister in charge of the environment – the Prime Minister.

There was wide consensus at the consultancy meeting that it was a wise government decision to set up the NSDC, chaired by the Prime Minister, to ensure everyone shoulders one’s responsibility.

Nonetheless, Dr de Marco should be encouraged, helped and given all the necessary assistance in the difficult task that has been bestowed upon him.  From the consultation meeting it is very obvious he has the support of most of the stakeholders and the public as confirmed from the results of the 2008 public attitude survey drawn up by Ernst and Young (2010).  Just one quote summarises all such expectations: “More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents held the view that the environment was equally important as the economy. The environment was considered to be more important by 23 per cent of respondents while eight per cent held the view that the economy was more important” (NEP Consultation phase 1 – issue paper page 44)

Most of all, Dr de Marco desperately needs the help of his Cabinet colleagues. And this can only be achieved if the Prime Minister resuscitates the now long dormant NSDC to give more clout to environmental responsibilities. Dealing with such matters in a piecemeal manner can only contribute to more borrowed time, which can be convenient for some but certainly not for the environment.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com