Let there be darkness… | Mark Sultana

The Planning Appeals Tribunal’s decision to greenlight a restaurant extension in Dwejra has infuriated environmentalists (and astronomers) concerned with light pollution. Birdlife CEO MARK SULTANA explains why light pollution is such a serious issue, affecting wildlife and humans alike

BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana
BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana

When we talk about pollution, ‘light’ may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Why is light also considered a pollutant? What are its effects on the environment... and why is it such an issue here in Malta?

Light pollution, as an issue in general, is detrimental not just to nature, but also to human beings. In Malta, however, it affects nature more than in other places: not just because we’re small, but also because the island is densely populated and heavily built-up. When you look at it as a national biodiversity issue, light pollution is more of a problem here than elsewhere. Because there are very few areas in Malta and Gozo where light pollution is not present. And if you look closer – if you zoom into particular areas – you will realise that… OK, where there is a high density of buildings, the light pollution will obviously be much higher. Industrial estates, the ports, etc., are all massively illuminated. Highrise also increases light pollution levels drastically. But then, you also see small pockets where you’d think there’d be no light pollution, as there are no nearby buildings. But the issue with light is – as we all learnt at school – that it travels fast; it radiates in all directions; it reflects; and the main effect of light pollution is the glare, which is visible for miles.

Can you give a practical example of what effect this has on birdlife in those areas?

Let’s take Xlendi in Gozo. It is one of the main nesting sites for Shearwaters; and when Shearwaters leave their nest at night, they look at the horizon to see where they want to go. Ever since they hatched from an egg, they would have been looking through a hole in the cliff-face, and seeing only the horizon. But because there is now so much light glare, the they will be unsure where to go. Often, they get attracted by the light: so they fly inland, instead of out to sea. And once they land, they’ll be stranded, because they can’t fly again. Shearwaters are equipped to jump of ledges, not to take off from the ground. Having said this, we recently met the engineers working with the Gozo Ministry on the new Xlendi regeneration project. We discussed the issue, and they agreed to install lighting which effectively reduces light pollution to practically zero. The tenders were issued for a type of lighting which is always directed downwards; with a cut-off system, using motion detection censors to only illuminate when there is movement nearby, etc. However, on the Xlendi promenade today, there are still the old massive globe bulbs. Their light is not directed where it is needed: i.e., downwards on the pavement. It is dispersed everywhere. And that is what is causing those Shearwaters to fly inland. Hopefully, this will now be addressed by the regeneration project…

The same cannot be said for Dwejra, however. Why is this area, in particular, so important when it comes to light pollution issues?

Dwejra is one of the few remaining areas – probably the only area in Malta and Gozo – where you can actually say there is, at present, almost no light pollution at all. Which also means that, if you increase the existing light by just a tiny bit – even just one light-bulb – it is going to have a massive effect. And this is why there was such an uproar. Because Dwejra is known for that. It is, in fact, a World Heritage Site purely because of its darkness.  It is around the only place you can get a good view of the night sky. That makes it vitally important for astronomers… but also for the general public: people who want to go there to relax under the stars at night. And when people go there… they are amazed. You almost don’t get to see a starry anywhere else in Malta; in Dwejra, when people see the night sky for the first time, they almost can’t believe their eyes. All that would be at risk, with even a small increase to light pollution in the area. It would also directly affect biodiversity: mainly, the Shearwater colonies in the area, but also other living organisms… like insects. Insects are heavily affected by light pollution. And what are insects? They are a vital part of the food-chain. If we reduce or eliminate insects, we will have a problem. Other organisms depend on them as a food source; and animals higher up the chain depend on those organisms for food, too. Some insects are also pollinators; they are necessary for plants to propagate. We always have to keep in mind that nature is a chain. Human beings are part of that chain, too. If we carry on messing things up, we will create problems for everything, including ourselves. For instance, there are clear indications of a correlation between light pollution, and health. So this is not just an issue of nature….

Before turning to the Dwejra permit itself… what can (or is being) done to reduce light pollution generally in Malta? Is there any sort of national policy on the subject? 

We are having ongoing discussions with Transport Malta, Infrastructure Malta, Enemalta, etc., to make sure they understand that, even if there is a national policy on lighting in Malta, we need to be more sensitive. And you don’t need extra money to change things; there is no significant cost difference between standard and non-reflective lighting systems. Nor do you lose the effect of lighting: you will still have the light you need: but only where and when you need it… 

Earlier you mentioned ‘motion detection sensors’, though. I don’t understand much about lighting, but that does sound expensive….

It is probably the only thing that comes at an additional cost, yes. But then you have to consider the energy savings of only having lights lit only when there are people nearby. The savings balance out the initial expense. Ultimately, though, the important thing is that we understand that – while light is necessary, for safety and other reasons – we should always go with the amount of light that is needed… and not overdo it. Why, for instance, do we have to have our bastions lit up with white and blue light? Why not with yellow light, that emits less glare? And there are many areas where light is similarly overdone…

Coming back to the Dwejra permit issue. The PA has a national obligation to take such issues into consideration: even more so in the case of a World Heritage Site. It doesn’t seem to be fulfilling this obligation. How do you account for this?

There are various opinions about this. I think it is partly due to the fact that the environmental responsibility was removed from MEPA, when it was split into the PA and the ERA. Though the intentions might have been good – they wanted a stronger, independent authority which is focused on the environment – in reality, they weakened the environmental protection sector. Because where, previously, there were people within the PA who were environmentally conscious… that was removed. Keep in mind also that ERA only has one vote on the Planning Authority Board. I would suggest that, if we want to keep ERA as an independent authority… at least, give it a right of veto. So that when ERA says ‘No’... it really is a ‘No’. And ERA won’t say ‘No’, unless it’s really detrimental. So if we really want to achieve the famous ‘balance’ everyone keeps talking about, between the environment and the economy… let’s look back at the last 20 years, and balance things out so that we are really sensitive about the environment now. Because we never were before; so the balance would have to involve much, much greater sensitivity to these issues today… to make up for the past 20 years of imbalance. Today, the only way to achieve that sort of balance in the planning infrastructure, is to give ERA a veto on the board. Dwejra is itself a good example of this: the application was rejected by the board where ERA was present; but then, there was an appeal… and the case was decided by people who might not have understood the environmental implications…

Is there nobody in the Appeals Tribunal representing the environment? Does ERA not have a representative on that board, too?

I’m not 100% sure of that; but whoever the individuals were, it is clear that there was no proper understanding of the effects of this development -especially the increased light pollution – on Dwejra. There also doesn’t seem to be an understanding of the history of this case. How did this restaurant pop up there, in the past 20 years? Wasn’t there supposed to have been a Visitor’s Centre? Was it engulfed by this restaurant? I’m asking these questions because I understand that a Visitor’s Centre would have a cafeteria. But a two-storey restaurant… now wanting to extend the number of chairs, and adding more table space? How was that allowed to even happen? This is why I believe there should be a basic principle involved here. Dwejra has to be treated as a ‘hands-off’ area. This is why this permit is so unacceptable.

Given the recent experience of the DB Group’s Pembroke project – which was overturned by the law-courts – is any action planned against the Dwejra permit, too?

Well, I can give you some news on that front. We called on the people to help us out with funding so that we can fight the case in court. We needed EUR2,000… and we collected that amount, and more, in just two days. So yes, there is a possible way out. We are going to appeal against the decision. As with the civil society action against the DB project… if there is a way we can safeguard Dwejra, we will take it. And the law-courts allow us to take the same route…

That sounds hopeful, but just this morning the DB Group announced it would be resubmitting its Pembroke application… pointing out the court decided only on the basis of ‘conflict of interest’. Technically then, the project could still go ahead. Are you concerned that you may have won a battle, but lost the war?

Even if the war hasn’t been won… what civil society wanted was recognition of the principle that a permit, if given, has to be given for the right reasons. And it must be given by the right people to take that decision…. not by people who bring ‘added value’ to that project. So this was an important judgment; not just for civil society and Pembroke residents, but also for the health and safety of our decision-making structures themselves; and for the people to understand that civil society will be there. The civil society movement is getting stronger. Nobody is going to trample over it now. We shouldn’t be complacent, naturally; but the old mentality of ‘u iva, mhux xorta’ might be losing its grip. No, it’s not ‘all the same’. In Dwejra, it is certainly not a case of ‘anything goes’. This is the case we will be making in court…

Coming back to the wider threats to biodiversity: Dwejra and Pembroke are just isolated examples. There is also a construction overdrive which is eating ever further into ODZ areas. Doesn’t this also directly threaten the habitat of local fauna? And… why do you think the PA just doesn’t seem to have a strategy on how to safeguard the environment at all?

I think that the overdevelopment drive is the single largest environmental issue we are witnessing today; and there is no better example to illustrate why than the fuel stations issue. We are in 2019. We are waiting for the Prime Minister, at any moment, to announce a cut-off date for the importation of fossil-fuel cars.  And yet there are applications for new petrol stations to open in ODZ areas. The PA is still giving out permits, even though we all know that soon, those petrol stations will be obsolete. But then, thanks to other changes to the planning laws, they might also be redeveloped into small ‘farmhouses’, and put up for rent. Or supermarkets, carparks, boutique hotels, etc.  And the permit will probably be given, because the footprint is there already. So… you asked me if there is a strategy to safeguard the environment. I say, there is a strategy on how to make money. In this case, it is to make money out of public land, which the people have a right to enjoy. 

I can understand private investors having that sort of strategy. But you’re implying that it’s the strategy of the national planning regulator itself. Is that the case? 

It is definitely the case that the regulations are being weakened. And if it’s not happening deliberately, it is definitely being done to facilitate people who want to make money. Of course, I understand that you need to have people making money, and providing employment opportunities, and so on. But surely, we can do it intelligently enough not to  also destroy our environment in the process...

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