Adapting to population pressures

Though essentially unrelated, waste and security seem to be intertwined: the first is a question of increased population pressures from both residents and non-residents, the second, a matter of better policing

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

As if the heatwave named ‘Lucifer’ were not enough to contend with in August, Malta seems to be confronted with additional nuisances in the summer months: both in part as a consequence of a dramatic increase in population due to tourism, and increased outdoor activity across the board.

Though essentially unrelated, two of these issues – waste, and security – seem to be intertwined. The first is a question of increased population pressures from both residents and non-residents, Maltese and non-Maltese; the second, a matter of better policing to be prepared for situations that are always likely to take place where there are more crowds or more people.

These are also problems which have both ‘first’ and ‘last’ entry consequences. The immediate problem of trash accumulating in Malta’s streets, especially in busy touristic areas, is that it renders our villages dirty and unwelcome for both residents and visitors alike – with all the associated health and hygiene issues. But at the very end of this all, is a national problem to cater for all this waste: not merely how to dispose of it, but also (where applicable) how to recycle it.

This is a situation that is troubling local authorities, which need to be better equipped and co-ordinated to dispose of all this waste. At present, garbage collection is a responsibility devolved to local councils. On paper this makes sense, as few are better-positioned to assess a locality’s needs than its own local council.

But local councils are also widely-known to be under-financed; and it is debatable in the extreme whether enough facilities are placed at their disposal (pun intended) to carry out such an enormous task.

Without singling out any particular localities, it is to be noted that many have adopted their own ad-hoc ‘solutions’, mostly based on the allocated times for the collection of different types of waste.

As such, different localities have adopted radically different strategies: some have reduced the hours for collection of black (general) refuse sacks, others have extended it. In the absence of any clear national policy, both these approaches can be seen to be defective.

The idea to ‘limit waste by limiting collection’ can only work in conjunction with other initiatives – including, for instance, public awareness campaigns – aimed at reducing the production of household waste to begin with. Conversely, making it as easy as possible to dispose of waste also serves as an incentive to be as wasteful as possible.

As a result, both lead to an increase in waste accumulating by the roadside.

Another consideration involves traffic: some localities have adjusted the garbage collection schedule to avoid clashing with peak traffic hours. This has delivered better results... not in the sense of reducing waste, perhaps, but in the sense of reducing the associated inconvenience. Perhaps this sort of initiative should be considered as a nationwide effort, instead of a purely local initiative in certain areas.

But it is the ‘last’ entry consequences that pose the biggest headache. Malta is still bound by an EU commitment to increase recycling of municipal waste to 50% by 2020. A plan to that effect was launched in 2013, entitled ‘Waste management plan for the Maltese Islands: a resource management approach 2013 – 2020’.  As of last year, however, our official recycling statistic stood at only 6%. Successfully attaining that target does not look very realistic... especially when one considers that population growth has exceeded expectation, since the time our national waste management strategy was drawn up.

It is clear that we need to step up our efforts in this direction. This might also require a greater effort by households and business to actually reduce and recycle their own waste. As with so many other issues, it will inevitably be a politically unpopular option – but one that may yet be forced on us by the sheer amount of accumulated waste.

As for security, it is no secret that heightened tourist activity also brings with it other challenges apart from waste management, especially (but not exclusively) in the Sliema-St Julian’s area. Areas which experience sudden, seasonal population explosions are prone to certain endemic issues: petty crime, street violence, vandalism and so forth.

Likewise, it is a complex phenomenon, for which no ‘magic wand’ solution is known to exist. But with a more concerted effort, it is also an issue that can be better managed.

It is not unreasonable to expect that a visible presence of police officers makes itself felt in such areas… but this in itself might actually raise the point of whether Malta’s police force is well-equipped enough to have a proper ‘tourist-sensitive’ police unit that can cater for the kind of situations that crop up during the summer months.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that Malta’s entire law enforcement capability may need to be upgraded in the light of the demographic changes we have experienced. Even without the added seasonal effects of tourism, the pace and quality of life in Malta has undeniably changed as a result of becoming more cosmopolitan.

The nature and substance of our national security issues have likewise evolved. It remains to be seen whether our overall approach to security will adapt accordingly, too.

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