The evolution of land reclamation

Optimists say that a Palm Island in Marsaxlokk harbour opposite the new gas plant could perhaps be convenient for berthing massive LNG carriers away from urban areas where otherwise they be perceived as problematic and residents are complaining – please, not in my backyard.

A Palm Island in Marsaxlokk harbour for the new gas plant? Residents will say, not in my backyard
A Palm Island in Marsaxlokk harbour for the new gas plant? Residents will say, not in my backyard

During a business trip to Singapore last month, I was fascinated by the island’s success in many sectors, notwithstanding the fact that it possesses no mineral wealth and is a densely populated country which has acted as a safe haven when the world was hell striven by the start of the recession in 2007. Singapore is roughly twice the size of Malta but houses over 5 million citizens in a densely populated area.

It comes as no surprise that over the past decades Singapore has invested heavily in land reclamation for large infrastructure projects such as a massive Freeport and construction of an international airport. So how can Malta ever reach the high GDP per capita on a tiny island where space comes at a premium and land prices are already very expensive (and scarce)? The probable answer is the continuation of land reclamation from the sea.

The topic recently hit the headlines after the prime minister announced the government’s intention to invite investors to participate in such ventures. As can be expected, the subject is highly contested by environmentalists and NGOs who focus their thrust against land reclamation, saying such measures will upset the ecological, scientific, archaeological habitat amid other cultural values.

It follows that due to Malta’s size, high population density and unique island biodiversity, any political announcements to encourage land-use are resisted by the environmental lobbyists, but of course welcomed by property magnates. The former base their complaints on the island’s relatively high urban land cover, while they refer to a high proportion of used dwellings (about 70,000) which in turn raises questions about the overall efficiency of land use when viewed in the context of the latest census relating to residential occupancy.

This bone of contention needs to be counterbalanced by the reuse of abandoned dwellings to accommodate social housing for the elderly and potential redevelopment of some of the dwellings, which are old and unfit for habitation. Of course this is what the Housing Authority is doing: inviting developers to come forward to form a joint venture with which to share the development costs with government so as to rehabilitate such derelict houses.

This is a medium-term solution but in the meantime, in my opinion, there is nothing to stop us from attracting new investment to emulate Singapore’s success in land reclamation.

There was much negative feeling against the alternative use of a mountain of inert material at Maghtab and some had suggested that due to its proximity to the sea at Qalet Marku, such building debris could be deployed to create a small island as land reclamation given the water level there is relatively shallow. This idea found strong opposition from a number of environmentalists. Naturally the construction lobby is very much in favour of sustainable work linked to large-scale land reclamation work, which on its own can secure jobs and perhaps qualify for EU funding.

The prime minister is encouraging the private sector to come forward with ideas and this is welcome. Any large-scale reclamation will inevitably stimulate the regeneration of key areas such as the St Julian’s inner creek area and Mellieha bay, but designs have to blend and respect with great sensitivity for its aesthetic value and historical significance with the functional considerations of a busy tourist centre with a modern promenade supporting multifarious commercial, cultural and recreation activities.

The question one may be asking at this stage is what is the alternative use of reclaimed land?

The answer is not very difficult to give since with a bit of imagination one can mention a number of creative projects that can be accommodated thus relieving pressure from building in outside development zone (ODZ) areas. As stated earlier the island is not growing in size but quite the contrary there is constant coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Consider for a while the ambitious cruise liner industry in Valletta and Cottonera being both construed on reclaimed land and, therefore, in this specific context, how vital it is for environmentalists to carefully weigh the advantages of better paid jobs benefitting from a heavy investment, both private and public, to reclaim land from the sea.

Land reclamation is not new to the Maltese islands and here I can mention with pride the success of the Marsa Sports Grounds, built entirely on reclaimed land, the sea originally reaching inland as far as Qormi since ancient times; the massive Freeport terminals in Birżebbuġa (employing thousands) and the platform on which the Delimara power station stands.

There will always be a price to pay when inert waste, usually from construction and demolition sources, is arbitrarily dumped into the sea for land reclamation. The hardest hit, from a purely environmental standpoint, is obviously the seabed, which not only loses its integrity in terms of physical characteristics but any biodiversity thriving on a particular site can be wiped out altogether. The obvious collateral damage to the Posidonia oceanica meadows (seagrass) that lie over large tracts of seabed at various depths around the coastline merits serious consideration as the ecological significance of such meadows is well known in terms of stabilising the seabed and serving as nurture grounds for an immense variety of marine organisms.

So now that the government is inviting investors to come forward to participate in this ambitious project, what are the environmental and economic implications of engineering an artificial island on a much smaller scale to the world famous Palm Island in Dubai? Could this pipedream materialise now that the Prime Minister has fired the starting gun? It is certainly a controversial topic that has long grasped the imagination of many architects and challenged the capabilities of structural engineers trained at our University.

Optimists reply that a Palm Island in Marsaxlokk harbour opposite the new gas plant could perhaps be convenient for berthing massive LNG carriers away from urban areas where otherwise they be perceived as problematic and residents are complaining – please not in my backyard.

Another idea is an artificial island for the purposes of constructing a mega-solar power station ostensibly to qualify for the EU funds given that twenty percent of our energy has to be derived from clean sources by 2020. So to conclude is it pie in the sky or a incredible dose of political audacity by Prime Minister as he is trying to start solving the dilemma of a shrinking island? If he succeeds, then that will be the day when Malta may rise as a phoenix out of the water and share the success of a quasi-Singapore in the Med.