The Santa Marija week in Malta is a period typically associated with festas, fireworks, holidays and a break from politics and controversies. Typically, the front page of any newspaper on the 16th of August carried images of Santa Marija revellers or headlines about the record number of crossings between Malta and Gozo. Not in 2021! The pandemic robbed us the merry festa headlines but we cannot blame the pandemic for not giving us a break from controversy this year. News headlines along the Santa Marija week were dominated by sorry news of plans for a 700-berth marina in Marsascala. Rightfully so, most where worried that this spells the end of Marsascala as we know it.
But let us not think that these controversial plans for this marina are new; seems like the main justification we are hearing for this plan is that Marsascala was earmarked as a potential site for a new yacht marina way back in the 2006 local plans. I’ll go further than that as it seems that since then this proposal continued to surface from time to time. Very few of us are aware that a Planning Authority application was submitted in January 2009 proposing the (quoting a verbatim from the planning application) redevelopment of the ex-National Waterpolo pitch into a mixed use development including sports and recreational facilities, residential, tourist accommodation and commercial spaces; and redevelopment of an all-weather yacht marina including reorganisation of mooring, construction of breakwater, placing of pontoons and upgrading of quays and ancillary facilities! Thankfully, it seems like the applicant had lost interest and the planning application process was shelved. In April of the same year, a report commissioned by the then-Malta Maritime Authority suggested that our little island needs 21 new yacht marinas, including a 400-berth marina in Marsascala creek.
The plans that surfaced in August of this year seem to have been conceived by Transport Malta in 2018. Why am I saying all this? Definitely not to justify what could be Marsascala’s pre-destined doom! Luckily so far it seems that these plans have never materialised, for whatever the reason that may be. The feeling that I get this time round is that there seems to be conviction to execute. But in the year of 2021; the year in which we are hearing how governments should prioritise environmental protection over the economy, the year in which we are planning to pedestrianise our towns to create more public realm and most importantly the year in which the United Nations’ climate report is sounding a code red for humanity; these plans should not even be thought or planned on paper, let alone steamrolled ahead. A 400-berth marina was not in 2009, let alone one with 700 berths in 2021.
One may argue that if you don’t own or plan to own a boat you have no idea how badly a marina is needed! I will not go into the merits of whether we need a marina or not but what troubles me with this thinking is that once again, in order to satisfy a present-day need, we will continue to exploit more depleting natural heritage.
Let us for the time being forget that potentially our public realm is being threatened, let us for the time being forget that our access to swim, fish or simply walk at the Salini and Żonqor areas in Marsascala is threatened and focus on how Marsascala’s natural habitat is already suffering because of unsustainable human interventions. Slime, the source of which has recently been unsurprisingly confirmed to be the offshore fish farms, continues to frequently blight the coast. Conservation of the Natura 2000 site at Il-Magħluq is already a complicated affair because of the developments that took place in the surrounding area. The once considered (man-made) crown jewel of Marsascala, the Jerma area is now shameful to even drive past. One could have easily argued that we needed the Jerma when this was planned, look at what we have forty years later. Many a times have we been reassured that fish farms will not have ill effects on the ecological balance of our southern coast, look at what we have to deal with now!
No amount of reassurances should convince us that this yacht marina, which may apparently be much-needed today, will not continue to compromise the natural marine habitat of Marsascala. In this day and age, we should be thinking about how to reverse the damage we have caused over the years rather than adding to the plight! It is time to shift our mindset from thinking about our present-day materialistic needs and focus on what our sick planet needs, not in the future but now!
Now let’s go back to the threat to public realm that these yacht marina plans bring with them. Many of us clearly remember being able to swim beneath Bighi in Kalkara before the marina took over. Is it still possible to swim there nowadays? Probably not! Would anyone dare swim in Msida creek? In 2021 we should stop focusing on how much the 2006 local plans have compromised us and focus on a National Public Realm Strategy that primarily defines what we believe by public space, legislates against public land (and sea) grab and promotes the notion that humans and nature are intrinsically inseparable and hence a strategy that increases greening and allows nature to flourish.
The worst thing that can happen in this Marsascala marina saga is for the issue to become politicised; protecting the public realm and guarding our natural heritage should never be a red or blue issue. I seem to observe a degree of radio silence within some people who do not agree with this project. A strong political movement is made up of people with similar values but different opinions. A strong political movement is one that encourages open debate about different opinions. Similarly, a much-needed national effort on environmental protection does not afford childish speculation, driven by partisan objectives, that the government is in crisis or speculate about rumblings within the party in government because people come forward with different sentiments on various issues. Protecting the little natural heritage and public realm that remains will not benefit from political football and childish blame games.
Brian Scicluna is Vice Chairperson of Fondazzjoni IDEAT.