At the end of last year, the Minister of Infrastructure Ian Borg announced that tenders for the Gozo-Malta tunnel project will be issued soon. As we have yet to hear about any serious studies having been concluded on social, environmental, and economic impacts, Ian Borg’s announcement is a tad premature. Such assessments take quite some time to be concluded and Ian Borg is bypassing these basic assessment procedures.
Why all this hurry? Why is he doing his utmost to hide the real implications of such a project from public scrutiny? It seems to me that he is resorting to populistic methods just to give the impression that he is delivering, at all costs, on the eve of an election. The people deserve to know what their options are before forming an opinion as to what is best for them.
It is now clear that the proposed tunnel entrances will be (most probably) below the Kenuna Tower in Nadur and in the Għerien area between Mellieħa and St. Paul’s Bay, on the outskirts of Manikata. Both areas are of ecological importance to Malta and Gozo and situated in our prime rural areas. On the Malta end, the tunnel entrance will have disastrous impacts since the area is home to that part of the water table which is least polluted on the islands. In fact, not so long ago, plans for a Golf Course in the area were discarded for a multitude of reasons. The long list of reasons is not fully known as the Malta Tourism Authority did not even have the courage to publish the EIA carried out on that project. It is however known that protection of the area in terms of the EU Water Framework Directive is a primary reason.
Meanwhile, Ta’ Kenuna in Nadur is primarily an agricultural zone having an ecology which requires protection. Apart from the environmental destruction, there are other consequences that will be brought about. Air quality will deteriorate due to a substantial increase in vehicle emissions. In addition noise and light pollution will be introduced to these practically pristine areas.
It would be also wrong to assume that a project of such a massive scale will not bring about adverse consequences to the surrounding areas. It will lead to wider roads to sustain the new traffic flow, more petrol stations will be considered ‘necessary’ and so on. I am yet to hear what the local councils in the nearby localities have to say about this as the quality of life for people residing in these two localities will be severely impaired.
It is evident that open spaces are becoming more scarce in our densely populated country so why should we continue taking up more land when we already have modernised the Ċirkewwa and Mġarr sea terminals. The government is ignoring other alternatives and pushing at all costs a tunnel solely for private car use. Why are we addressing the problem of commuting only through the use of cars in the first place?
We should take a step back and prioritise people through mass transportation systems that are linked between land and sea. One of these alternatives could be the introduction of a foot passenger fast ferry that makes stops in Gozo, Sliema, the Grand Harbour, and possibly in the St Paul’s Bay area. This in turn can be linked to other areas through the national bus system. This would surely be more manageable since it has already proven to be feasible in both the Grand Harbour as well as in Marsamxetto Bay. On top of that, it will help alleviate the ever-growing national traffic gridlock as cars will be reduced from our roads.
There is another important factor which is hardly mentioned: Gozo’s current economic strategy. While it is important that we look at other ways to improve transportation links between Malta and Gozo, it is important to see why people are practically forced to commute to Malta to work. It is evident the government has failed in its economic plans for Gozo, and it is hiding its shortcomings to the Gozitan people by offering a tunnel as a solution. It is incomprehensible how large amounts of money are ready to be invested in a tunnel but there is reluctance to invest in Gozo’s business development.
In an economy that is now more than ever geared on digital dimension, I can’t see how Gozo cannot be an important player to this plan. What Gozo really needs as soon as possible, is the second fibre optic cable that will enable businesses to establish themselves on the island. This will drive new economic development without sacrificing the island’s natural and historical assets that are so important to the tourism sector, a backbone of the Gozitan economy
The realistic alternatives to a tunnel are many and I urge Ian Borg to take a step back before it is too late. I am sure he will not want to be remembered as the person who caused irreversible ruin to Northern Malta and Gozo.
Published on the Maltatoday – Sunday 20 January 2019