The environmental state

November 24, 2018

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Alfred Baldacchino

The last meeting of the Environment and Development Planning Parliamentary Committee on the state of the environment report highlighted, consciously or unconsciously, the environment hurdles that are preventing professional environmental awareness, management and enforcement, in short not allowing Environment and Rural Authority to fulfill its obligations.

One of the main difficulties is the fact that environment is not understood and interpreted in a holistic way. This was also emphasised by the chairman of ERA who stressed that a great percentage of people only regard the building and development aspect when referring to the environment, unaware of other important biodiversity, marine, air and water aspects. A case in point is the replenishing of Balluta Bay with sand, which was completely carried away at nature’s whims and fancies.

An MP on the head table remarked on the marine environment, as if dumping to reclaim land is something to which there cannot be any objection, because it is far from the visible eye, ignoring the biodiversity (biological and physical aspect) completely. Environment Minister Josè Herrera was quick to comment that the ERA has the qualified officials (in fact two marine biologist professors sit on ERA’s board) to address this issue.

What irritates me most is the fact that such need for awareness and educational approach is more often than not addressed to ‘school children’. Not that this in itself is wrong, but today a good number of  primary  schoolchildren, individually have more environmental awareness than that collectively of most of the political MPs and official entities who are nilly-willy involved with environmental matters.

Perhaps the Planning Authority tops the list for such lack of awareness through the blindness for development without any environmental considerations.

As I had the opportunity to write and say many times, it is not just the Minister for the Environment and his entourage who bear all responsibility for environmental matters, but all official and social entities such as religious, legal, commercial, educational, voluntary organisations, mass media and the man in the street.

Each of these, in one way or other, use, abuse, and is in contact with environmental matters and has different but collective responsibility for such a holistic approach.

The ERA on its own cannot, despite all its willingness, achieve this national responsibility, the more so since it is not given the importance it deserves by the government

I would like to see or hear somebody, possibly a political leader who does not need air, water, the ecosystem and health for his everyday livelihood.

This was endorsed by another MP on the head table who emphasised that at home it is his children who tell him what to do and what not to do on environmental matters – thanks to the hard-working professional educators.

Another MP on the head table, referring to the building of towers, remarked that if there is a demand for them and a demand for more people on this island, than one has to satisfy this demand. Yet again, the unawareness of the holistic approach towards environmental matters, through narrow specialised teaching, ignoring the greater environmental demands of society such as a healthier environment, more open spaces, demand for less population density because of its negative social, ecological and financial impacts, less stress, all in the interests of present and future generations. It seems that the politician is programmed by the Planning Authority’s dictum.

ERA on its own cannot, despite all its willingness, achieve this national responsibility, the more so since it is not given the importance it deserves by the government, both with regard to resources (financial and human) and also by the lack of respect it has from other government quarters, especially from the Planning Authority, which still dictates what goes on in the construction and developmental field irrespective of social, national and international environmental obligations, not to add electoral promises.

This was again highlighted by the Environment Ombudsman when saying that the ERA needs to be strengthened and be on the same level as the Planning Authority if environmental matters are to be taken seriously and professionally.

The Environment Ombudsman also dwelt on a case in point. He said that it is unacceptable that an employee (a case officer) of the Planning Authority completely ignores and dismisses a report on a project drawn up by the Environment and Resource Authority.

It is not only unacceptable but also unethical by an official authority to act in this way and regard the ERA as still under lock and key in limbo and under its control, as it was when it was under Mepa.

These are the highest hurdles faced by the environmental watchdog. It was so evident from the debate in the said parliamentary committee. Whether this is being done with political blessing or with personal initiatives and interests is left for the intelligent public and intellectuals to conclude. One can build more on these environmental official hurdles following next week’s two-day seminar on the state of the environment report.

Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece