Bringing back the sand - Petra Caruana Dingli

Bringing back the sand - Petra Caruana Dingli

Malta is not the Caribbean or Mauritius. Our coastline is rocky and sandy beaches are scarce, comprising only three per cent of our coastline. Over the years much of the sand has steadily degraded, reduced to tiny slivers and patches near busy roads.

Unfortunately, this loss was not just nature taking its course. The beaches have mainly degraded due to human interference, with badly planned and inappropriate construction. Buildings and roads along the coast have affected the natural dynamics of our sandy bays.

Among the worst offenders are the roads built directly behind or even across these beaches, particularly on the north side of Malta, such as at St George’s Bay, Balluta and Xemxija. Once the beaches were cut off from the inland valley systems by roads and walls, their sand gradually stopped being replenished naturally.

For example, the sandy bay at Xemxija was connected to the Pwales valley. Rain water discharged from the valley would carry stones and soil into the sea. I am no expert on this, but scientists have studied how some of this sediment would eventually form sand particles and be deposited back on the shallow sea bed and shore. Sand would thus move from coastal land to sea and back.

This dynamic natural process was disrupted by the buildings and roads constructed directly behind the beaches. The wave action in the bays was also changed by construction along the sides. The beaches began to erode as the sand diminished, and in many of them there is almost no sand left.

But Malta is a nation of builders. We have built so much, in fact, that we hardly have any space left to build on. Now that we have destroyed the natural beaches with buildings, we are creatively constructing artificial beaches.

As long as they don’t affect the ecology of the bays negatively, new beaches are a good idea. First of all, they help to ease the pressure on the few natural sandy beaches we still have, such as Golden Bay or Għajn Tuffieħa. And sandy beaches are good for tourism, and for general fun.

Now that we have destroyed the natural beaches with buildings, we are creatively constructing artificial beaches

The latest replenished sandy beach at Balluta Bay has been inaugurated and opened for swimmers. Only a small pocket of sand beneath the high roadside wall was left. With several metres of new sand, the place is already packed.

At St George’s Bay in 2004, the beach was built up using imported sand from Jordan, and this was also used at the perched beach at Buġibba. In both cases, the sand was topped up in later years. But at Balluta, the sand was dredged up from the bay itself. The ministry has said that several more beach replenishment projects are being studied and are in the pipeline.

Balluta Bay was an immediate hit, even though the inlet is small and narrow. But the entire St Julian’s Bay, of which Balluta forms part, was pretty overcrowded already. Every weekend it is also invaded by pleasure boats of all shapes and sizes. The swimming zones then fill up with small clumps of vegetation floating on the water, which I understand is due to these boats putting down and bringing up their anchors like there is no tomorrow. They must be doing untold damage to the seabed.

The maritime authority should consider providing buoys for such boats, to avoid this excessive use of anchors. A fixed number of boats could book and rent a buoy space to spend the weekend hooked up in St Julian’s, if that is what they want to do. But the idea of carrying capacity does not seem to exist in this country.

Build now, think later

The Paceville masterplan is on hold. The first version of 2016 was so controversial that it was scrapped. A new version was meant to be published over a year ago, but nothing has materialised. Now we are told that it depends on the timing of the revision of the local plans, which have been under discussion for years.

In the meantime, permits will be granted for large projects in Paceville and St George’s Bay, without the spokes of a masterplan in their wheels. The impression out there is that favoured big developments will go ahead, and everyone else will be left to sweep up the mess.

Apparently, masterplans for St Paul’s Bay, Qawra and Buġibba are also on the planning authority’s wish list. But when will any of this ever see the light of day?

The planners need to decide. Is a masterplan necessary or not? If so, then do it. If not, then scrap it. But muddling along for years and years, granting permits without an overall vision in an area which is already stressed and chaotic, will obviously just lead to more problems and difficulties down the line.

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