NGOs voice concerns on “state of the environment, quality of life and heritage”

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NGOs voice concerns on "state of the environment, quality of life and heritage"Eleven NGOs and academic bodies have got together to voice their concern on issues related to what they describe as “the state of the environment and the impact of our quality of life and heritage.”

The group said that they are “passionate about the health of society and the natural and cultural heritage of Malta.”

Wrong and Abused Planning Policies

The group said that “people have lost faith in governmental strategies for our environment, and particularly in the Planning Authority.”

The PA, they said, “has repeatedly adopted seriously flawed policies, such as the Fuel Stations Relocation Policy – which is now finally universally acknowledged as wrong, but which, given the dragging of feet for revision by the responsible authorities, is still being used to justify the replacement of a solitary petrol pump, within urban areas, with 3000 sq.m. of speculation outside development zones.”

The group argued that the recent approval to allow the doubling of the size of fish farms, that were “acknowledged to have already been working illegally” – “as long as the same amount of tuna are kept”- is the latest of Planning Authority decisions that render environmental policies “a dead letter.”

These decisions encourage developers to think that anything is possible – a hotel on the former Flower Power site, houses on archaeologically- sensitive sites, such as a yoga hotel in Qala, Tal- Qares in Mosta, building over heritage gardens in Balzan and Mosta – “because often the unthinkable finds favour in some obscure policy,” the group said.

“The government is justifiably flaunting the creation of much needed large landscaped spaces, at Benghajsa and Ta’ Qali,” said the group, “but it seems to brush aside the fact that it has nevertheless accepted, retained and attempted to justify the 2006 Rationalised Development Zones rather than retracting them.”

They went on to say that open spaces are under constant threat from development, to accommodate housing units or car parks, or “senseless” road-widening.

The group argued that “not only has this led to a degradation of air quality, and a declining aquifer water supply, but threatens the mental and physical well-being of people living in a country with one of the higher densities in the world.”

Addressing traffic problems holistically

The group pointed out that “large tracts of agricultural land (which are still to be quantified) are being tarmacked over under the guise of road-widening projects, with the relative authorities skirting even the need for planning permission, and appropriate impact studies.”

Such road-widening schemes are “short-sighted,” they said, “since as every driver is aware, road widening simply shifts traffic bottlenecks from one point to another.”

The issue of traffic congestion is not being tackled holistically, the group stated. Alternative forms of transport are not being actively studied, and bicycle use is still not being taken seriously in road design.

The direction towards free public transport is welcome, they said, but until a modal shift to public transport is made, reducing cars on the road will remain a gargantuan task, and buses will remain an inefficient mode of transport for commuters, the group added.

Natural Environment

The group noted that the issue of invasive species, including both plants (such as the Fountain Grass, Penisetum sp) and animals (such as the crayfish, Procambarus clarkii) is being overlooked; ERA, the main agency responsible for addressing such problems “suffers from a serious lack of human resources,” the said.

They stated that “the disregard of our marine environment is incredible.” Adding that, “the sea is a fundamental part of our economy, not just in terms of fishery resources, but also of recreation and tourism. NGOs applaud the efforts and campaigns to reduce plastic litter, which ends up in the sea.”

“But we are concerned that land reclamation is being promoted as a means for helping the environment; although adopted in other countries, no justification has been made for Malta, other than a proposal to resolve the issue of the massive volume of excavation waste,” the group said.

“Given the devastation that land reclamation will have on marine habitats and biodiversity, it would be more appropriate to study the reduction of the need to excavate, or the way we excavate, or even to recycle the excavated waste.”

“We NGO’s remain unconvinced that land reclamation is not a big real estate opportunity for some,” said the group. “At a time when everybody is worried about rising sea-levels, it would be foolhardy to increase land footprint which would be prone to flooding, particularly where exposed to the North East and North West winds.”

The group went on to say that “people have had their fill of pre-electoral flash announcements, which are inevitably short- term, barely sustainable, projects, which will not mitigate the long-term negative impacts on our well-being and our islands.”

They concluded by urging “all political parties, and especially the Government, to sincerely valorise our natural and cultural heritage within truly sustainable and long-term plans and policies, to ensure that future generations can enjoy the little that will be left, unless we change direction.”

The eleven NGOs and academic bodies involved are: Nature Trust Malta, Din l-Art Helwa, Moviment Graffiti, Flimkien ghall-Ambjent Ahjar, Professional Diving Schools Association Islands of Malta, Grow 10 Trees, Malta Energy Efficient and Renewablr Energies Association, Repubblika, Franciscan Friars. Malta, The Biological Conservation Research Foundation and The Faculty for the Built Environment.

Photograph by Alain Salvary

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