Small overpopulated islands have to struggle to fit environmental priorities on the same agenda where other social and political issues also feature. Pressures to generate economic activities on every stretch of land available for development, the need to create employment and a mixture of greed and lack of sensitivity to the intrinsic value of undeveloped land often create a lethal combination of treats to our fragile environment.

The environmental NGO, Din l-Art Ħelwa recently expressed concern on the steadily deteriorating state of the natural environment. It called for political action to be taken to protect our islands from continuing overdevelopment.

The NGO did not mince its words when it said: “In Malta, the inability and, most notably, the lack of political will exercised by successive governments to enforce the law on the environment has been appalling.”

The fact that a new Administration has just taken over is a justifiable reason to remind political leaders of their responsibility to ensure that environment protection should be one of their top priorities irrespective of political commitments that they may have made in the run-up to the election.

There are some ideas in the present Administration’s programme that are likely to have a positive effect on the environment if implemented. The generation of electricity through the use of natural gas rather than heavy fuel oil is just one positive initiative.

However, the more substantial impact on the environment is likely to come from the Government’s commitment to ensure that new development projects respect good environmental management practices.

This country certainly cannot afford to have “politicians, of both major parties, that are beholden to the construction industry and people put in key roles that are carefully picked so as not to rock the political boat”.

One very concrete aspect of the overdevelopment phenomenon that has plagued these islands for the past few decades is the huge oversupply of unsold residential property, some of which was built below the minimum standards that buyers would consider acceptable.

It is very important that any measures taken to restore some viability to the property development industry are primarily based on bringing about demand side incentives for people to invest in property that is already finished and available for sale.

Measures that promote an even bigger supply of property, like issuing more building permits, will only continue to pile pressure on the environment.

As Din l-Art Ħelwa rightly proposes, Malta “needs a firm comprehensive legislative framework to safeguard, guide and regulate the impacts of humans on the natural environment and their quality of life”. These safeguards have been applied elsewhere very successfully. What we need is a strong political will to see them adopted locally.

Education will also be an effective tool to convince as many people as possible that, often, a field that is not cultivated and is covered with wild flowers can be much more valuable for society than a block of unsold apartments.

The economic, social and environmental priorities that are set need to be adequately balanced in order to make the management of the environment really sustainable.

A strong political will to protect the environment is often evidenced by a determination by the powers-that-be to enforce the law whenever breaches by developers have been proven and irrespective of the inconvenience and cost that such enforcement will imply.

Finally, NGOs like Din l-Art Ħelwa must continue to act as the voice of conscience for our society and also of political leaders because the environment is our common heritage.

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