Sunday, December 07, 2008
Two EU Natura 2000 sites threatened by a TEN-T road at Ghadira
Alfred E. Baldacchino
The recent proposal to build a road at Ghadira is indeed alarming. The reasons advanced to justify such a road sound more like the environmental joke of the week, rivalled only by the same Minster’s environmental statement that the second class water produced by the drainage purification plant has no economic value. No scientific reports or studies were published with regard to the proposed road. Everyone would have loved to see these, rightly so because of other international obligations. The statement by the Minister concerned, as reported in the press, could lead one to think that the plans to build such a road were hurriedly drawn up before the deadline to apply for EU funds expired, not primarily for the sake of the road, but to obtain and utilise funds. Once this news and maps have been officially released by the DOI, one presumes that Cabinet has approved it.
The green and red arrows are inserted by the author, the former indicating the amount of sound and light pollution, disturbance and impact of the new road, and the latter indicating the area that will be at the mercy of strong easterly winds. These were inserted on the original photo montage issued by the DOI showing the new road and the removal of the existent road.
As an EU member State, Malta is bound by the EU legal obligations of the treaty it signed on 1 May 2004. One such legal instrument of this treaty is Council Directive 92/43 EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, or as it is better known, the Habitats Directive. According to Government Notice 112 of 2007, Malta proposed the Ghadira Reserve as a Site of Community Interest (pSCI), which means a site in the biogeographic region (i.e. the Mediterranean) that contributes significantly to the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of a natural habitat type listed in Annex I, or of a species in Annex II of the Habitats Directive, and which may also contribute significantly to the coherence of the EU Natura 2000 network, and/or contributes significantly to the maintenance of biological diversity in the biogeographic region concerned. The Għadira Reserve, together with the other Sites of Community Interests proposed by Government Notice 112 of 2007 (among them also il-Qammieh) was approved by the EU as Special Areas of Conservation. According to the Habitats Directive, a Special Area of Conservation means a site of Community Importance designated by the member State through a statutory, administrative and/or contractual act where the necessary conservation measures are applied for the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of the natural habitats and/or the populations of the species for which the site is designated. Moreover, the Malta Government also declared Ghadira Reserve, through the same Government Notice 112 of 2007, as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the Conservation of Wild Birds, better known as the Birds Directive. Today, Ghadira Reserve forms part of the EU Natura 2000 sites. According to the Habitats Directive, Natura 2000 sites are a coherent European ecological network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). This network enables the natural habitat types and the species’ habitats concerned, to be maintained or where appropriate, restored at a favourable conservation status in their natural range. The Natura 2000 network also includes the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) classified by the Member States according to the Birds Directive.
L-Għadira Natura 2000 site as per G.N. 112 of 2007
Il-Qammieh Natura 2000 site as per G.N. 112 of 2007
As indicated above, the boundary of the Ghadira SAC touches the boundary of another SAC – il-Qammieh, also proposed by the government through Government Notice 112 of 2007, and now endorsed by the EU. The two site plans published with the G.N. 112 of 2007 are being included. Therefore, the new road will cut through two SACs, both forming part of Natura 2000. And such a proposal for such a new road has to follow the procedure of the obligations of the Habitat Directive. Article 6 of the Habitats Directive obliges Member States to “…take appropriate steps to avoid, in the Special Areas of Conservation, the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated, in so far as such disturbance could be significant in relation to the objectives of this Directive.”
Furthermore, Article 6 of the Habitat Directive obliges that: “Any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives. In the light of the conclusions of the assessment of the implications for the site and subject to the provisions of paragraph 4, the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public.” (my emphasis)
Malta is also a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention – the Convention on Wetlands, which is an intergovernmental treaty providing the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. On accession, Malta designated Ghadira as the suitable wetland in its territory for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. As a contracting party, Malta is obliged to formulate and implement its planning to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List and, as far as possible, the wise use of wetlands in its territory.
A number of environmental NGOs, and a substantial number of the public who really and sincerely have the environment at heart, not for any personal gain, have expressed their concern saying that there is no need for such a road. Indeed a comment by one NGO – Din l-Art Helwa – expressed fears that this would open virgin land to speculation. I cannot for a moment imagine such a road with no adjacent “landscaping”, with bungalows and possibly a high-rise tower similar to the one at Mistra. The present four-carriageway road is quite good and adequate enough. The removal of this road would threaten and possibly eliminate the Ghadira Reserve – a Natura 2000 site.
If one were to look at old maps of the area, the present Ghadira Special Area of Conservation was once a salt pan because the sea had access to the deepest inland part of the area, which is below or at sea level. When the strong easterly winds blow, the big waves are kept at bay by the road. It would take only one such strong storm to sweep over and eliminate the Natura 2000 site, including the adjacent surrounding agricultural land. I witnessed such storms twice during the habitat engineering works at Ghadira in the early 1980s. The negative impact of the removal of the present four-carriageway road, would be augmented by those from the building of the new proposed road at the back of the Natura 2000 site, with sound and light pollution, other disturbances and the alteration of the hydrology of the area, besides obliterating pristine natural habitat. These would render the Ghadira Natura 2000 site a mere glorified duck pond, and would also negatively impact il-Qammieh Natura 2000 site too. In brief, the proposed new road does not have any economical benefits, it does not benefit the social environment and it negatively impacts the ecological environment. It is not sustainable, but is merely a “free market concept” without any social or environmental considerations. In the run up to the last general election, and in the first public meeting after the general election, the Prime Minister repeated, wrote and stressed, that the environment is one of the three pillars of his government. I have been trying hard to find a reason, following such a commitment, why the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister responsible for the Environment, as well as the chairman of the National Commission for Sustainable Development (NCSD), is finding it difficult to activate such Commission, which was set up in 2002, in terms of the Environment Protection Act (2001). The main remit of the NCSD is to advocate a national sustainable development across all sectors, to review progress in the achievement of such sustainable development and to build consensus on action needed to achieve further progress, besides being an obligation as a member of the European Union. This lack of action with regard to the NCSD is also further surprising when during a business breakfast organised by the Nationalist Party, The Times (10 September) reported that “Dr Gonzi said the time had come for the pendulum to swing towards the environment. He argued that the country is at a crossroads in terms of how it views the environment and stressed that a strategic decision on sustainable development needs to be taken now.” I am informed that during another recent business breakfast held on 20 November, a member of the NCSD Commission remarked that the Commission has not met for the last two years! The workings of such a Commission would definitely put an end to such environmental antics. It would also be of help to the Prime Minister and his government in honouring their commitments with regard to their environment pillar, both to the local community, to future generations, and also its international obligations. It would also help the people of Malta to avoid embarrassment vis-à-vis their international obligations, especially those of the European Union environment acquis. Present and future generations will doubtlessly ask why EU funds were spent in a way that threaten two Maltese EU Natura 2000 sites. They will also ask why more natural protected environment of international importance was taken to build a road when a four carriageway one existed and was adequate. They will, without doubt, ask which Minister was responsible who approved such a project when historical, archaeological sites and other roads are crying for maintenance and restoration. Certainly they will ask who the Minister was who had the responsibility to protect their environment, which they had lent us, and more so since it was one of the main pillars of his government. Those responsible may not be here to answer such questions.