09 June 2005

The Web

Recreating lost Atlantis

Last week prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced that Government will shortly be publishing a policy concerning land reclamation using construction waste, leading to the creation of artificial islands.
Obliging the building industry to take care of its own waste would generate a significant number of jobs in stone and concrete recycling. The regeneration of the environment has created jobs right across the globe. Notable examples include the city of Washington DC, built on land that was once swamp not to mention the extensive reclamation in the Netherlands and the city –state of Singapore.
Why not also in Malta? The political will is now there and if bona-fide developers unite they can create a public bond to fund land mass projects that can, on a minor scale, mirror Dubai city built on reclaimed land.
Dubai a city already synonymous with flashy developments is a new multibillion-dollar project that has set a new precedent for construction projects across the globe, attracting up market tourism.
The project, the Dubai Waterfront, is a conglomeration of canals and islands studded with luxury hotels and homes. Locally, land has always been our most-prized natural resource. Just visit the splendid transformation of the old Hilton site into a bustling marina cum hotel cum residential Mecca in the Mediterranean.
Another regeneration exercise is the building of the Tigne Point residential and shopping complex in tandem with the restoration of Manoel Island fort. Why are these success stories?
The answer is simply a question of setting the right economic parameters to make it a success. The green light for land reclamation on a large scale is certainly manna from heaven say engineers and architectural firms who have been waiting with bated breath for such a policy to solve the problem of waste management. Again for the armchair critic it seems too utopian that Government has finally heeded the many articles written on the subject by those arguing that economical use of man-made islands can help revive the economy and provide mass employment opportunities for PPP projects.
A Sunday newspaper had reported that proposals were submitted by private investors for the reclamation of the stretch of shallow sea opposite the Maghtab landfill at an investment of up to Lm300 million. Other sites have been identified by MEPA. But are we moving at the right speed to solve our waste management?
Let us look back on what has been promised in the past. In October 2001, Environment Minister Dr Francis Zammit Dimech said there were urgent measures to be taken by government in order to fully implement the strategy of rehabilitating Maghtab by 2006.
In 2001, government was already seriously considering an option to use construction debris to reclaim land from the sea. It seems that now the penny has dropped and four years later we can see tangible proof that serious policy on coastal development will be taking shape. Regrettably it will take us 20 years to reverse the ecological damage at Maghtab and Wied Fulija.
Everything takes ages in this country as a consequence and very often, we are too late. As expected we need not waste more time pontificating on the subject and following various MEPA funded studies we need to move on. Coastal planning incorporates a holistic approach to address all the demands and impacts arising from development of coastal resources and uses for sustainable business and recreational uses. Just imagine if we took a decision to reclaim land using construction waste 15 years ago when the government decided to dump all untreated waste in Maghtab and Wied Fulija.
Sour grapes one may add since over the past 15 years we have generated millions of tonnes of inert waste, which if properly used could have created a land mass of immense commercial value. Such projects funded out of the State coffers would have possibly utilised surplus workers from parastatal and the drydocks sectors.
A lot has been written that landfills such as Maghtab pose a number of environmental hazards. In most areas, pollution of both the air and soil is caused by combustion from organic materials and by the emission of methane gases and toxic solvents and their by-products from industrial activities.
The nature of other pollutants does not confine them to localised areas in Maghtab but are also capable of travelling long distances, either airborne or by filtration through the water table and contamination of the adjoining seabed.
It is interesting to read in the Scott Wilson report that with the Maghtab site there are sections which can be rehabilitated before others although this is a slow process and it would take around 20 years for the whole landfill area to be completely rehabilitated. Lobbyists for the construction of a golf club have a long wait. Scott Wilson said that before any work can start the waste mass needed reshaping to avoid subsiding, especially in the case of Wied Fulija where the waste could fall into the sea.
The installation of steel shafts to recover and treat the gases are in the process of being drilled to start the slow and arduous rehabilitation of the area.
On a positive note we laud the unrelenting activity by George Pullicino the minister responsible for MEPA to take urgent measures to control and improve the environment in our cities and rural districts. With the help of EU funds we can address such major issues in the planning of government and private industries environmental management systems.
Luckily we have been confirmed as qualifying for Objective One funding. It will provide high levels of support to raise the wealth creation capacity including financing of land regeneration projects of targeted regions.
Positive and speedy action is called for because things are already behind schedule. Our engineers can also feel proud of building another Atlantis from the seas.
The story of Atlantis, a fabled utopia destroyed in ancient times, has captured the imagination of scholars ever since it was first described by the philosopher Plato more than 2,000 years ago. Creating a theme commercial complex and naming it Atlantis in the Mediterranean will certainly add to our geographical attractions and be a sustainable investment to attract the millions expected to be repatriated by the recent tax amnesty.

The author is a partner with PKFMALTA an audit and
business advisory firm.

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