Blaming climate change will not wash

This suggests that the much-vaunted system was not designed to cater for the expected increase in rainfall; and, worse still, that it cannot even cope with the amount we are already used to

Rarely has the term ‘adding insult to injury’ been so perfectly exemplified, as in Transport Minister Ian Borg’s response to last week’s flash-floods.

The ‘injury’ in question concerns a torrential downpour which submerged some parts of Malta last Thursday, and left a trail of chaos and destruction in its wake. Cars and rubble-walls were washed away by the torrent; private property was damaged; and an army helicopter had to be used to rescue civilians who were stranded in floodwaters in Burmarrad.

The same floods also brought Malta to a temporary standstill, with intense traffic congestion reported in various parts of the island.

It is only fair to add that such freak meteorological occurrences are by no means unheard of – although, with an average of 99mm of rainfall, this one was particularly severe – and also that, if there is one element that no government in the world has any power over, surely it must be the weather.

But that only covers the ‘injury’ part. The ‘insult’, on the other hand, was provided by Mr Borg’s subsequent claim that: “Thursday’s widespread flooding was due to irregular weather patterns caused by climate change.”

“It is not a question of not being prepared for the situation,” he continued. “It was a situation where we had truckloads of soil being carried towards areas like Marsa for example, which blocked culverts in the area...”

On one level, the minister is entirely correct to describe such events as “extraordinary situations” (even if they are likely to soon become the order of the day). But what makes his reaction so unacceptable is that ‘extreme weather’, of the kind we saw last Thursday, has in fact been predicted by climate change scientists for over two decades now.

And while the government has no power to influence the phenomenon of Climate Change itself: it is - and has been for a long time – responsible for preparing the country, as best it can, for the effects of these predicted events.

It was for this very reason that so many environmentalists, scientists and others had beseeched the government to desist from its policy of enlarging Malta’s road infrastructure, for instance; or to rely so heavily on construction, as a means of kick-starting the economy.

Indeed, one does not even need the threat of Climate Change to understand their concerns: the correlation between flooding, and over-development, has long been recognised.

By replacing countryside, or arable land, with urban development, we are only creating smooth, unnatural pathways for more precious water to run off into the sea… instead of replenishing the water-table, as would otherwise happen through natural processes.

Furthermore, the loss of open space to more development also deprives rainwater of access to valleys and fields, that once served as natural drainage systems.

Government cannot claim to be ignorant of this reasoning; it has been spelt out – to both the present administration, and its predecessor – countless times over the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, the same Climate Change warnings also envisage imminent droughts and water-shortages. Yet while the Labour government forged ahead with infrastructural projects that – regardless of Borg’s claim – directly contributed to the flooding problem… it has done nothing (or very little indeed) to try and harvest any of the abundant rainfall, to store for future use.

This raises an anomaly pointed out by this newspaper last Sunday: the precise quantity of rainwater to have fallen over the Maltese islands last Thursday – at 29.3 cb.m – was almost as much freshwater as is produced annually by our Reverse Osmosis plants (31.2 cb.m, in 2015) at a considerable energy cost.

At a time when Malta is actively considering a tunnel beneath the Gozo channel, and an underground railway connecting various parts of the island… it is inconceivable that government should have invested so little, in an underground system of reservoirs – of the kind long proposed by hydrologists such as Marco Cremona – to boost the replenishment of the aquifer.

Moreover, Ian Borg’s attribution of blame to climate change, also forces us to challenge other aspects of his government’s policies. Small though they may be, our own CO2 emissions are caused chiefly by cars. How, then, can the Infrastructure Minister defend excessive roadworks… which are only going to encourage more emissions, whilst also increasing the water run-off problem?

Likewise, how sustainable is our Reverse Osmosis model: when it consumes so much energy, to produce freshwater than can be harvested for free?

Lastly, one must also consider that – armed with all the aforementioned warnings of ‘extreme weather’– government also recently implemented an EU-funded National Storm Water relief project; which did not relieve even the less severe flooding we witnessed earlier this month… still less last week’s deluge.

This suggests that the much-vaunted system was not designed to cater for the expected increase in rainfall; and, worse still, that it cannot even cope with the amount we are already used to.

Not one of those shortcomings, however, can be lain at Climate Change’s door. On the contrary, they are all the result of a government which simply failed to ever heed the scientific warnings, specifically on the subject of Climate Change.