Environmentalists and the PN’s green agenda

January 29, 2017
A page from the PN’s environment document ‘A Better Quality of Life’

A page from the PN’s environment document ‘A Better Quality of Life’

A page from the PN’s environment document ‘A Better Quality of Life’

The Nationalist Party’s new environment policy is “thorough and promising”, stakeholders believe, however clear environmental timelines would help the electorate trust it to deliver where successive governments have failed.

PN leader Simon Busuttil last week launched a list of environmental proposals, hedging his bets on a green agenda, along with good governance, to try and upstage the Labour Party at the next election.

2017-01-29-pn-environment-documentThe document, ‘A Better Quality of Life’, puts forward 16 key focus areas and 171 green proposals, mapping out a plan as far forward as 2050. Among the ideas to come out of the document are a new skyline policy, the exclusion of land-reclamation for speculative purposes and an increased emphasis on solar rights.

Perhaps the most talked about suggestion, a promise to enshrine environmental protection in the Constitution, has been hailed by the experts contacted by this newspaper as a sign of “real action”.

If the same people who brought about the 2006 expansion in building zones make up a future PN government, then I most certainly do not trust it

Veteran conservationist Alfred Baldacchino said this commitment could finally see parties take a stand against long-time abuse.

“The commitment to include the protection of the environment in the Constitution contributes to making hot potatoes easier to handle,” he said.

Marlene Farrugia, the former chair of Parliament’s Environment Committee, felt, however, that “quite a few sizzling potatoes were spared a mention!” She did not elaborate.

Environmental lobbyist and The Sunday Times of Malta columnist Claire Bonello also praised the constitutional move. She hopes it could mean that the environment will no longer be wiped off the statute books by MPs at the swipe of a pen.

But can the PN be trusted to deliver when it comes to the environment? Many remember the position taken by previous Nationalist administrations not so long ago.

In 2006, much to the dismay of environmental groups, the PN government revised the development boundaries in all localities. The result? An area roughly the size of Siġġiewi was turned into developable land.

During the same period, the government facilitated the construction of penthouses by relaxing the conditions and increasing height limitations in localities such as Swieqi and Marsascala, intensifying development in already built-up areas.

Sociologist and former Alternattiva Demokratika leader Michael Briguglio said the PN would have to provide clearer pledges in the run-up to the next election.

“The PN document already proposes clear commitments on issues such as major ODZ development [the PN has pledged to renegotiate a controversial deal granting virgin land at Żonqor Point to a private developer]. In other areas, such as water management, the PN can offer clearer commitments,” he said.

Dr Bonello shared Dr Briguglio’s sentiment. The PN, she said, had to find a way to convince the electorate that it would “walk the walk when in power”.

“How can it do so? The one thing that springs to mind is by declaring set dates for the implantation of certain measures and by demoting whoever had a hand in the country’s sad environmental state to the dark, dank cellar under Stamperija [the party headquarters]. We all know who I’m referring to,” she said.

How would you judge the PN’s environment document?

Alfred Baldacchino, conservationist: This document is comprehensive. It provides a proper definition of the word ‘environment’, binding the biological and the physical, making it as comprehensive as possible. The commitments allow stakeholders to be involved in decision making, so decisions in the national interest will not be decisions against the environment.

Michael Briguglio, former Alternattiva Demokratika (Green Party) leader: It is evident the PN embarked on a wide-ranging consultation exercise coordinated by experts in the field. The result is a text which proposes a better policy framework than that put in place by the current Labour government.

Claire Bonello, green lobbyist: The document looks thorough and promising. I especially like the proposal to entrench environmental protection rights in the Constitution. The commitment to revise SPED is commendable. In its current format, it’s a ridiculous non-policy which is as stretchy as knicker elastic.

Marlene Farrugia, former chair of Parliament’s Environment Committee: It is an excellent working document which implies that the PN have learnt from their mistakes and the mistakes of the PL. Simon Busuttil is leading his damaged party into cleaner, favourable territory where the environment is concerned.

Can the PN be trusted to deliver on its green agenda?

AB: I cannot imagine any political party riding roughshod over the environment anymore.

MB: The commitments the PN is making are clearer than those coming from the current administration, but some could still be made clearer. It should provide clearer pledges in the run-up to the election.

CB: It has to convince the electorate it will walk the walk. It should set dates for the implementation of certain measures.

MF: I do not know what a future PN government will be made of, therefore I cannot gauge whether it will keep its promises on the environment or not. If the same people who brought about the 2006 expansion in building zones make up a future PN government, then I most certainly do not trust it, in spite of Simon Busuttil’s honest intentions. If, on the other hand, there is a coalition government made up of a significant number of tried-and-tested environmentalists, then yes, what is left of our environment will be safe.

Water harvesting culture

April 28, 2014

times of malta

Monday, 28th April, 2014

Water harvesting culture

 Alfred E. Baldacchino

Our capital city Valletta will be celebrating the European Cultural Capital in 2018. Definitely, this will contribute to the economic and social fabric not only of Valletta but also of the country at large. It can, however, also contribute to ecological aspects as well.

Valletta is what it is today because of good planning and environmental management by its builders – the Knights of Malta. Not only was the architectural aspect taken into consideration, but also the ecological characteristics of the islands.

They specifically planned the harvesting of rainwater so that such a fortified city could resist any siege with adequate supply of such a scarce natural resource. Such culture and strategic thinking kept us going through the centuries, making the best of whatever nature provided, for free.

The Malta Water Association (MWA) is proposing that such an asset be included and highlighted together with the cultural and historical characteristics of Valletta. It is thanks to the rainwater harvesting culture that Valletta became unique and what it is today. This is part of the hidden culture and history of Valletta too.

water colour painting of water cisterns in Valletta

water colour painting of water cisterns in Valletta

There is a cistern in Valletta under almost every building. The Knights enforced a law requiring each house to have a cistern to collect and re-use rainwater, and be self-sufficient in such a life saving resource. And it was such water harvesting combined with the use of water from the springs in the perched aquifer, brought to Valletta through the Wignacourt aqueduct, that was instrumental in providing such a scarce and much needed resource during the sieges that Valletta and Malta went through.

Today most of these cisterns are damaged, unused, unappreciated and neglected. It would only be wise and positive planning if these are referred to in the V18 festivities to mark the richness of Valletta as the European Cultural Capital city.

Such a professionally planned and engineered water supply system in Valletta can compete with any world water management plans

Besides being an historic and educational exercise, this strategic move could contribute substantially to re-establishing the culture of rainfall harvesting, which was instrumental in maintaining Malta’s prosperity throughout the centuries. Such a professionally planned and engineered water supply system in Valletta can compete with any world water management plans. The reintroduction of such a culture can come to our aid again as a centre of excellence in water management.

Besides these water planning and management feats, the sewerage system in Valletta built in the 17th century was the most advanced in the world at the time. There exists a fantastic maze of water reservoirs, tunnels and other networks underneath the city. These are part of the historic and architectural heritage and can also provide and attract interest and attention (after renovation, maintenance and adaptations) both from the locals and from the many tourists who are fascinated by the fortified old city of Valletta. I am sure the EU would offer a helping hand in such a sustainable water resource management project.

bell shaped water cistern in Valletta photo Keith Buhagiar

bell shaped water cistern in Valletta (photo Keith Buhagiar)

No doubt about it, Malta is facing severe problems of water sustainability. It is a known fact that Malta has the least amount of water in Europe on a per capita basis. The aquifers have been severely over­exploited in the last decades and this is rendering their services to nought. Seawater desalination is not considered as a sustainable practice, considering the high energy consumption also contributing to emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The revival and reuse of the water harvesting network in Valletta is recommended by the Water Policy 2012, and also by recent EU water policies: rainwater harvesting, as a sustainable practice, must be introduced or reintroduced.


water harvesting network beneath the City (Photo: Keith Buhagiar)

The Malta Water Association’s proposal is to incorporate in the Valletta City of Culture 2018 the re-activation of Valletta’s (and Malta’s) unique rainwater harvesting culture and put it back on the world map for social, ecological and economic benefits to be reaped.

This can be achieved by identifying disused rainwater cisterns and rehabilitating them, so that they can reduce the stress on our groundwater resources and reduce the financial burden of desalination. Indeed some of these cisterns are within palaces and museums which are already contributing to Malta socially, ecologically and economically. Awareness and accessibility of these assets will further enhance both local and foreign visitors’ experience.

Such measures can be augmented by surveys and questionnaires to assess Malta’s rainwater harvesting potential and opportunities for providing more. Technical guidelines can be drawn up to ensure the maximisation of Malta’s rainwater harvesting potential, and the safe use of the harvested water.

Communication, education and public awareness campaigns are a must to instil awareness about Malta’s water problems, and promote rainwater harvesting as a ‘rediscovered technology’.

The precautionary principle regarding the sole dependency on desalinated water is another factor which justifies use and reuse of a rain water harvesting engineered network as a back-up to national security.

The urgency of such a measure can be appreciated when considering that a possible oil spill or any other issues with regard to the supply of fossil fuel in the Mediterranean will lead to a very limited availability of potable water.

The Malta Water Association feels that there would be great satisfaction and reason to celebrate the uniqueness of Valletta if such water harvesting measures were taken on board.

This would be an evolving project requiring ambition and flexibility crowning the V18.



Alfred E. Baldacchino is a member of the Malta Water Association’s executive committee.

The greener it can get

November 29, 2013


The greener it can get

Friday, November 29, 2013, 

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 which will eventually be submitted to the European Commission for funding, was discussed at a public consultation earlier this month.

Consulttion Document cover

The synopsis presented contains positive ideas. The full report was not available being ‘a long and detailed document’ and ‘not easy to use for public consultation’. This greatly hindered more indepth suggestions and comments. Could it not have been uploaded on the department’s website?

The synopsis is based on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of rural development based on five themes, with objectives and activities for funding.

Theme 1 deals with water, wastes and energy.
Can water be managed in the absence of a national water policy? The present fragmented ‘management’ reveals a ministry digging a tunnel to channel rain water directly to the sea. Another purifying sewage water and dumping it in the sea. A corporation managing and distributing potable water while a secretariat is trying to plug holes and mend cracks in water reservoirs and cisterns.

Such lack of coordination and waste of financial resources, most of which are coming from the EU, does not augur well. This was also pointed out by the representative of the Malta Water Association during the public consultation, adding that lack of access to the original draft report restricts discussions.

Activities suggest investment “in water management, abstraction…” Does this mean that abstraction will be funded when this is being tackled by another ministry trying to control and regulate it?

Theme 2 deals with Maltese quality produce, highlighting the need for quality assurance, poor enforcement of regulations and support for adding value as the major opportunities. The GMOs Pandora’s Box that farmers and consumers are being offered and possibly swallowing and the ever-increasing public rejection of GMOs can be capitalised upon by the farming community. Not only was this not even referred to but a farmer’s representative was heard saying that farmers cannot do without GMOs!

Theme 3 refers to sustainable livestock.
A positive item under activities to be funded is the support “for activities that reduce livestock farms’ impact on the climate and environment”. This can perhaps address the issue of past EU funds used to build such livestock farms on sensitive water table areas, rendering the water so nutrient rich and unusable.

Theme 4 deals with landscape and the environment.
The objectives are great and the wording is even nicer. But this is another subject where fragmentation reigns supreme.

Landscaping is under the responsibility of the Ministry for Transport where the main driving force is devoid of any ecological input. Mepa is the competent authority (on paper) under the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s Office. It is no secret that Mepa has rarely raised a finger to protect any tree and often turns a blind eye to all mutilation, uprooting, chemically-killed trees and introduction of alien species.

Local councils, under the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism, go on a rampage ‘pruning’ trees with no questions asked.

The reply to my question as to who will be the regulator in such landscaping was no reply at all, sending shivers down my spine. The sanest political, technical, administrative, ecological, economical, legal way forward is that the regulator has to be the Minister for the Environment. This will ensure that there will not be any cow itch trees, fountain grass, flame trees et al. or turf growing in rural areas. And EU funds will be used in line with EU obligations, not as has happened in the past.

The economic bias of such a
report completely dwarfs the
sensitive ecological obligations

The funding of “new skills and knowledge (that) will be required in terms of landscape management, ecological understanding, conservation and practical skills” is a good idea if well managed and executed professionally.

The maintenance and restoration of rubble walls brought a rumble of disappointments by many who have been waiting for five and more years to restore the breach in their rubble walls. Breaches in rubble walls contribute to soil erosion, which fills valleys, and eventually is carried out to sea. Cannot photos and videos record such breaches to allow their immediate restoration and then farmers be reimbursed by the RDP?

rubble wall builder - The Times

Breaches in rubble walls contribute to soil erosion, which fills valleys, and eventually is carried out to sea (Photo: The Times)

A one day’s wait, especially during the rainy season, is too long for this fragile environment, resulting in ecological and additional expenses.

The wider rural economy and quality of life are addressed under theme 5
Among the objectives listed is the development of bed-and-breakfast business, which is also a good objective. However, if its implementation does not encompass the ecological impact it can be bizarre in such a small island State, the more so when experts and representatives involved in such activity omit biodiversity experts and the Ministry for the Environment, whether by conviction or for convenience.

The unnumbered delivery section outlines other actions, including ‘valley management/landscape management partnerships’ and a ‘rural resource hub’.

The first is urgently necessary even from an ecological point of view but, God forbid, if this is executed on the lines of past years without any holistic professional input but just by bulldozing earth to temporarily please the eye and inflict ecological damage.

The ‘rural resource hub’ is also welcome and can fill the void and neglect so conspicuous during the last decade. The once beneficial government experimental farm has, during the last years, been used more by domestic cats, dogs and pets. The once experimental farm can help educate, train, give technical knowledge advice and hands-on experience to all stakeholders in rural development.

These are but a few reflections and suggestions on the abridged consultation document, without having access to the original draft and keeping in mind that “precise details may well change over the next year, as discussions and agreement are still being developed in Brussels”.

Unfortunately, the economic bias of such a report completely dwarfs the sensitive ecological obligations. The outline nonetheless contains important and useful points that can contribute to rural development and Maltese biodiversity with some dotting of the i’s and crossing of thet t’s.

Alfred E. Baldacchino is a former assistant director at Mepa’s environment directorate.