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Sand winning - Anne Zammit

Is the Balluta experiment just the tip of the iceberg?

Showers and recycling bins at Balluta Bay belie what’s in store for beaches from Mellieħa to Marsalforn.

A pilot project aimed at “testing the possibility of re-nourishing the sandy beach at Balluta Bay using sand found on the seabed within the same bay” ran well over the projected four to five days.

An unnatural shoreline has been formed at Balluta by the dumping of sand in the bay. Wave action has already begun to eat away at the artificially formed beach creating an awkward step down to the water’s edge.An unnatural shoreline has been formed at Balluta by the dumping of sand in the bay. Wave action has already begun to eat away at the artificially formed beach creating an awkward step down to the water’s edge.

St Julian’s local council chastised the authorities over the timing of the dredging operation in mid-summer. Yet it could hardly have been otherwise.

According to the project description statement (PDS), “calm seas most of the time” were essential for the extent of the “small scale” experiment, which looks to be the basis for future beach reclamation projects.

The Balluta experiment is just the tip of the iceberg, hinting at a much larger, more complex project veiled beneath still waters.

The part of an iceberg that sticks out visibly above the waterline is known in ice terminology as a “hummock”. A glossary for the 57 different types of sea ice aptly refers to the greater, hidden part of an iceberg (the bit that sank the Titanic) as a “bummock”.

With ice melt in the Arctic accelerating, the region has become a magnet for sand miners. Melt water runoff from the ice sheet is depositing large amounts of sediment in the mouth of Greenland’s river/glacier deltas.

The global demand for sand as a prime ingredient for construction is also driving devastation of North Africa’s sandy beaches for export, by illegal operators referred to as the “sand mafia”.

Absolutely none of this has anything to do with current works by the tourism ministry at Balluta. The pilot project was made to jump through the usual round of hoops before a permit could be issued.

A 1998 application for beach reclamation at Balluta “from sand dredged nearby” was refused by the former MEPA.

Another attempt in 2010 for “upgrading of Balluta Bay and renourishment of beach” fell through after objections.

The present “experimental” project seems to have gained credence in the screening stage by proposing a new type of “sand winning” method. It was claimed that this would provide “a greater level of accuracy and ensure against the formation of craters on the seabed”.

The PDS described how “divers would move along the seabed in a similar way to using a vacuum cleaner, collecting sand from across the borrow area”.

In early August snorkel divers at the bay appeared to be monitoring the extent of the underwater borrow pit, from which the permit allowed sand to be taken while avoiding disturbance of nearby posidonia sea grass. However, the prescribed sand-winning suction pump was not in evidence during any part of the process on that day.

Instead, a standard dredger was cratering the seabed off the waterpolo pitch, loading grey sand onto a barge to be spread by hand shovel across the beach. (It was the change in wave dynamics after construction of the pitch which is said to have reduced the size of the beach in the first place.)

A rubber-tyred Bobcat, prescribed by the PDS for spreading the sand evenly, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a pair of African workers were made to heave shovels and level a dozen or more mounds of sand, each the size of a small pyramid.

Residents… have little doubt that winter storms will see a slow but sure return of the sand to refill the seabed craters. Borrowed by man, reclaimed by nature

These two fellows on the beach, the only ones not operating machinery or in the water, were visibly struggling in the hot sun. Not to worry. Some expense may have been sidelined by shelving the ordained, but completely transparent, Bobcat.

All the favourable boxes in a preliminary environmental assessment were ticked “insignificant” impact. The only nod to marine life in the bay was a vague query over whether commercial fisheries would suffer, which is hardly applicable at Balluta. 

It was also maintained that “the proposed experimental renourishment project will not have any significant effect on the built-up area surrounding Balluta Bay” – with little consideration of social impacts.

The new 900 square-metre sand pitch at Balluta is likely to serve as an open invitation for all-nighter informal beach parties, as has happened at the artificial beach in St George’s Bay. Strict 24-hour beach management is now needed at Balluta Bay to pre-empt and prevent conflict in this densely populated community.

Residents in the area are keeping calm. They have little doubt that winter storms will see a slow but sure return of the sand to refill the seabed craters. Borrowed by man, reclaimed by nature.

Even the Tourism Ministry has admitted that the beach is “not permanent” and would require wave deflectors. Since this is only an experiment, the floating “other interventions” to keep the sand in place are not on any planning horizon.

Innumerable, invisible sand-dwelling invertebrates and micro-organisms in the bay’s ecosystem were regarded as disposable. With time Balluta Bay may recover from the incursion of the dredgers. Not so at Mellieħa, infers the Environment Resources Authority.

It turns out that the Balluta Bay project was merely a guinea pig for a much larger Malta Tourism Authority project planned at Għadira, with a rather more damning environment impact assessment.

 Screening by environmental consultants of massive interventions planned for Mellieħa Bay has raised a number of significant concerns:

“Irreversible alteration/obliteration of seabed habitats, which may affect the present ecosystem” and potential long-term alterations to the beach dynamics and wave and current patterns which in turn “may affect the whole bay ecosystem”.

 An additional 30,000 cubic metres of “land sand” is proposed to be excavated, “which will be used for the levelling of the newly created beach profile.” The source of this sand is not clear. The very suggestion brings back visions of the 2001 Mġarr ix-Xini fiasco and smothered seahorses.

Sand engineering works in Mellieħa Bay are to include a 20,000 square metre submerged “wave deflector intended at partially protecting the newly-replenished sandy beach”. Rows of groynes made up of loose boulders are to join it to the seashore.

Deflecting of waves to encourage “inland sand dune migration while ensuring sand retention even during severe storm conditions” sounds all very fine. Yet playing the nature card with claims of restoring the dune system may be little more than a ruse to justify another mega-project for Transport Malta.

As the Mellieħa local council has noted, Phase 3 of the Għadira sand-winning project includes construction of an elevated three-lane dual carriageway. This has been left out of the development application. PA 01820/18 refers only to sand replenishment, wave deflection “and related marine works”.

In a reference to the proposed Għadira road development, the council urges clarification “so that the EIA will also cover this major development”. The “high potential of adverse impacts” from the project, likely to run over a number of years, calls for in-depth study, added the council.

Future scoop-and-dump activities may appear in the revival of a 2011 attempt at beach replenishment in Marsalforn, one of Gozo’s priority marine habitats.

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