The prospect of land reclamation in Malta has been rekindled in recent months, especially as the government seems bent on plans to dig a 13-kilometre-long tunnel linking Malta to Gozo. Government sources have said that land reclamation is being viewed as the main way to deal with the one million tons of waste that will be generated when the tunnel is excavated.

Land reclamation is not an entirely new concept to Malta. The Marsa sports facility, an area in Msida and large parts of the Freeport in Birżebbuġa are examples of major reclamation projects.

A team of Environment Resources Authority technical experts has been conducting a marine survey of the coast of Malta over the last few months to identify sites where land could potentially be reclaimed from the sea. They did this by first identifying the environmental criteria – for example, protected marine habitats or the presence of particular marine or other species – that would rule out given sites around the coast.

Their conclusion is that the stretch of coast around Xagħjra is the only possible site available for a major land reclamation project. The rest of the island has effectively been ruled out on a range of environmental grounds, for example, the presence of sea grass over large tracts of the seabed or parts that are the mating grounds of protected species. Nevertheless, other smaller projects could potentially be allowed in certain bays around the rest of the island, such as, ominously, “for the extension of a seaside hotel’s lido”.

Government sources have indicated that while the ERA may have been cautious in its assessment of possible sites, this did not mean it constituted the final position on where or how land reclamation would be allowed. No policy currently exists to regulate land reclamation but the new – and long-awaited – Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) had made a fleeting reference to it.

Clearly, a new policy for land reclamation is now urgently needed if it is to become a reality and already major property developers, such as Seabank owner, Silvio Debono, and the business giant, Tumas Group, appear to be lining up to take advantage of this new potential property bonanza.

Land reclamation in a country the minuscule size of Malta is not in itself a bad thing, provided always it is sensitively exploited, environmentally safe, economically feasible and tightly controlled through strict planning laws. It cannot become another construction development free-for-all for greedy developers, some of whom have already begun to circle.

Land reclamation must form an intrinsic part of the country’s strategy for the reduction and recycling of construction and demolition material and the ERA’s declared objective of establishing a proper system for the management of construction waste. It must meet the ERA’s ultimate aim of bringing about “a cultural and behavioural shift within the construction sector”, leading to the introduction of “sustainable alternatives to the disposal of material that has the potential for reuse and recovery”.

Moreover, reclamation must form part of a nationally agreed strategy that is fully incorporated into SPED policies. Individual projects must, as a minimum requirement, be firmly subject to a Strategic Environment Assessment as required by EU law for any major plan or policy having a deep impact on the environment, as this assuredly will.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial