Land reclamation: Gated communities with their backs turned on our horizon?

Malta’s environment minister is probably in favour of a very expensive project for land reclamation. But four questions remain unanswered

The Palm Jumeirah project in Dubai, one of the world's grandest land reclamation projects
The Palm Jumeirah project in Dubai, one of the world's grandest land reclamation projects

In December 2018, the Environment and Resources Authority justified studies on land reclamation as a way of setting clear “environmental red lines” in an initial stages of the process.

But three months down the line, Environment Minister Josè Herrera has taken the role of chief promoter of land reclamation, arguing that it is the long-term solution to the construction waste problem and a way of putting this resource to use instead of dumping it in quarries or spoil grounds.

But here are four questions, which the minister has so far avoided.

Can land reclamation be economically feasible without real estate, which would see new gated communities with their backs turned on local communities deprived of open sea views?

There may well be an argument for reusing construction waste in land reclamation projects, serving a public purpose like relocating environmentally-taxing infrastructure – like recycling plants, which weigh on local communities – or to create space for solar panels; or even as a way of creating new open spaces and woodland on reclaimed land. This will still come at a cost especially if protected undersea habitats are also impacted upon by reclamation works.

But at least in such cases the impact will be offset by public gains.

Yet, if land reclamation is driven by the private sector it will also expect to recover the considerable costs involved in the shortest time possible. A 2007 study commissioned by the Planning Authority undertaken by British experts Scott Wilson and environmental consultants ADI, had put the cost of a reclamation project on different land formations in Xghajra and Bahar ic-Caghaq at between €42 million for small scale coastal works at Bahar ic-Caghaq, to €546 million for an artificial island in Xghajra.

This led the authors of the report to conclude that other measures should be considered “to reduce the size of the construction waste stream, before embarking on such as high-cost project.”

The cost of reclamation in the northern part of the Xghajra coast was set at between €250 and €439 million. The cost of using construction waste for land reclamation ranges from €15 to €40 per cubic metre, compared to just €3 to throw it back into quarries. The same report concludes that the only way to render such development economically feasible would be “economic development” similar to the Smart City project.

A preliminary report drafted by the ERA identifies large-scale reclamation between Xghajra and Portomoso for “an investment for commercial and industrial/urban purposes”, as well as for the “creation of natural habitats.” The risk of such development would be that of further increasing the economic dependence on the construction industry, possibly even flooding the property market with new upmarket sea-view properties.

During last week’s edition of Xtra, Sandro Chetcuti has already hinted that artificial reefs could be developed for “touristic purposes”. The risk is that any open or “natural” spaces created on these islands will simply serve as embellishment for gated communities for the global rich, which turn their backs on local communities robbing them of views of the horizon.

Will the State foot the bill for large-scale land reclamation projects? And will this result in another case of socialised risk for private gain?

The cost of land reclamation includes both edge-protection works, and the costs of containing waste in bunds. Without containment, placed material would be subject to rapid erosion and dispersion across large areas, which would be environmentally acceptable.

Where reclamation formations require the construction of bunds in relatively deeper water, or require a large length of bund (for example in the case of an island) then the costs increase significantly, particularly in the early stages of the project.

According to the 2007 study, edge-protection costs range for land reclamation in Xghajra cost between €164 and €273 million. The creation of artificial island was deemed to be even more expensive. This raises the question: who will foot the bill? The Scott Wilson report suggested that due to the “rather marginal returns with risks associated to lack of security of material supply”, the government would have to step in to fork out the initial cost.

The availability of a large amount of construction waste from the proposed Gozo tunnel may reduce uncertainty on the supply of material, but the expense will still remain prohibitive for private investors seeking a fast return on their investment. This may in turn increase pressure to build more real estate on reclaimed land.

Can we have land reclamation without sacrificing more of our coastlines and ruining coastal views?

The coastline is not just ecologically important but it also an integral part of the collective memory of the Maltese, intrinsically linked to the island’s history and identity.

The Landscape Convention of which Malta is a signatory, is meant to protect these cultural landscapes. The least visually intrusive of the proposals included in a preliminary study by ERA consists of an artificial island set on the spoil ground where construction waste has been dumped for the past decades. But this area only has a potential for small-scale land reclamation according to the report, and would come at considerable expense.

The only area identified for large scale reclamation in the ERA preliminary reports is an area of seabed stretching all the way from Portomoso in St Julian’s to Xghajra including waters off Sliema, Valletta and Cottonera. Just imagine walking down promenades in these localities and seeing land instead of the horizon.

The ERA study also identifies a number of other sites for medium and small-scale land reclamation which include the Mgarr harbour in Gozo which has been in the past identified for a cruise liner terminal, Qalet Marku in Bahar ic-Caghaq, St Paul’s Bay, Marsaxlokk and an area off Xghajra already utilized for the dumping of construction waste.

Although Qalet Marku in Bahar ic-Caghaq has not been identified for large-scale land reclamation, it still has “potential for breakwaters, marinas and touristic development”. This suggests that land reclamation will inevitably impact on coastal views in an island where the sea has been traditionally associated with open views and a natural limit to the development frenzy.

Will the prospect of land reclamation encourage the production of even more construction waste?

The possibility of reusing waste, consisting of limestone building blocks or excavated limestone material into a suitable building material, has been the subject of a number of studies.

One of the processes which has already been patented envisions the collection building blocks or excavated waste and its processing into a powder. The powder is then converted into a workable paste, which can be moulded. The resulting reconstituted stone material is a hard, dense limestone material, which can be cut, shaped and finished in a similar manner to natural limestone.

But faced with PN proposals on this matter, Josè Herrera has questioned the economic feasibility of this option: “I’ve talked with many investors about the issue. Not all material is viable here because the resulting stone can be, in some cases, more expensive than normal stone,” Herrera said.

But one of the risks of land reclamation is that it could discourage the re-use of this waste in housing projects, while creating a new demand for a process whose financial viability may depend on the construction of more real estate. Rather than discouraging more buildings land reclamation may well have an opposite effect.

Moreover it may also encourage the authorities to approve more large-scale projects to secure a reliable supply of material for both large-scale reclamation projects and smaller projects along the coast.

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