Gozo an ecological island? You must be joking

It is all so easy to come up with a catchphrase for an election and declare that your aim is to turn Gozo into an ecological island.

The Malta Independent on Sunday, 8th June 2008, by Noel Grima -It is all so easy to come up with a catchphrase for an election and declare that your aim is to turn Gozo into an ecological island. But then it’s much harder to actually do that.This, and more, emerged on Thursday at a Civil Forum held by the European Parliament representation in Malta at Ta’ Mena farmhouse (an organic farming site well worth a visit) on the road to Marsalforn.

As invariably happens at many such dos in Gozo, the event was well patronised by many foreigners who live in Gozo and poorly by the Gozitans themselves. The main speaker was Green MEP Gisela Kallenbach and consequently it was well attended by AD activists.

The other speaker of the evening, Ing. Marco Cremona, who has just won an EP ecological award, set the tone of the debate. Gozo has 400 people to the sq km, while Malta has 1,400. We get our water by using electric power. We get stone for our buildings from the ground itself, but the stone in quarries will last for another 50 years or so. One-third of our houses are unoccupied. For all our emphasis on tourism, a tourist uses more water than the residents.

Malta is the ninth driest country in the world; after it come countries with deserts. Yet, we do not have a water policy. And we have both water scarcity and also water flooding when the rains come. This is due to urbanization but also due to the fact that houses today have no cisterns. If each house had cisterns, it would be able to cut down on its water consumption by 40 per cent.

Twenty-eight per cent of Malta is built-up and the unused rainwater that flows out to the sea amounts to 15 million cubic metres, as much water as we use for our agriculture. The reason for such collective waste is because water consumption is subsidised, so we are made to feel we can waste what is a scarce resource at almost zero cost. We do the same with the other scarce resource, stone: we pull down houses and then dump the debris out at sea.

Speaking perhaps precipitately after just a day-and-a-half in Gozo, Ms Kallenbach suggested Gozo as a unique island and urged the Gozitans to go for “soft tourism” where people can go for de-stressing. She too complained about the many empty or unfinished houses.The first speaker in the debate pulled her up on “soft tourism” asking from where the jobs would come. Ms Kallenbach, in reply, said that as an MEP she regretted that the San Lawrenz to Mgarr road recently redone with EU funds did not have a bicycle lane. She earned a round of applause for that.

Professor Edward Scicluna said Gozitans are tired of people from the mainland telling them what they should do, as if they were a museum. Gozitans are for development. But he was pulled up short by the next speaker, Frank Gatt, the coordinator of the Gozo College, who said that development had become a bad experience for the people of Gozo. The discussion then moved on to real issues. The owner of Ta’ Mena spoke about the great difficulties he faced turning his farm into an organic one. Either all Gozo goes for organic farming and not just one farm, he said, because an organic farm can only be sited five miles away from the nearest non-organic farm or else suffer the risk of being polluted.

Also, how can farmers switch over to organic farming without access to water? He had spent two years waiting for a permit to build a reservoir across the road to collect rainwater. When people propose damning the valleys they face resistance from those who say they want to protect the flora and fauna. He also suggested adding agro-fishing to agrotourism. Another speaker, a foreign woman, also spoke about organic farming, saying that when she applied for land to do organic farming in Gozo she was sent from the Ministry for Gozo to the Lands Department only to be told there was no land available. The government should set up a specific scheme for organic farming and provide money for that.

She added that she has just opened an organic shop in Gozo but most people do not know what organic farming is all about. The discussion moved on to other subjects. A Mr Portelli spoke about the Hondoq ir-Rummien development saying this was still on the cards despite the fact that 80 per cent of the people had voted against it. Gozo (and Malta) is a country where solar heaters could be used all the year round. Perhaps the people at the dockyard can be set to produce solar heaters, which the government then gives to the people. There must be far more law enforcement as Mepa had issued warnings that are 15 years old yet nothing has been done. Mr Portelli also spoke about what is happening to Dwejra, a mystic place, as he put it, which is being destroyed.

Another speaker would not have ODZ applications tackled by Mepa and claimed that a forthcoming development in Qala threatens the water table. Arnold Cassola said that had the wastewater treatment plant in Gozo been chosen better, the water it produces would have been good for agriculture. He also suggested that instead of the government spending Lm3 million to build new housing, the government spends the same amount to restore old houses or give people money to repair their houses just like it is doing with balconies.

Bus transport in Gozo is also bad, he added, and people have two cars per household because people cannot use a transport system that just is not there. Dr Cassola urged the Gozitans to do better than the Maltese: when the Maltese changed their buses they got diesel buses from China, whereas the Gozitans should go for smaller and electric, buses. Carmel Cacopardo agreed. Malta will soon have to completely overhaul car taxation because of EU infringements. This is the right time to introduce eco-taxes and shift the use of private cars to public transport. With one of the highest car density figures in the world, transport is one of the major contributors to degradation.

An elderly foreign lady who has been living in Gozo for 32 years agreed. She said she has seen the quality of air in Victoria deteriorate especially at peak times when traffic clogs up the main roads. It was not all gloom and doom, however. An Australian of Maltese descent who, together with his better half, toured over 30 countries, found none better than Gozo to settle in. They work in very advanced and revolutionary high tech and can work from home with a computer and Internet connection. They were attracted by Gozo’s beauty and are a perfect example of a success story. The government should attempt to bring more software development business to Gozo. The focus in Malta at the moment is all SmartCity and there should be some of this outreach to Gozo. Young people get quite excited by this, the speaker said, saying they had found.

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