The Great Fire of Magħtab: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

The spark that set off the 31st August Magħtab fire which blanketed the whole island was lit decades ago.

This article was first published as part of the Isles of the Left‘s environment section 

Very few might imagine that what is currently referred to as Mount Magħtab was originally a valley. Truckloads of unseparated waste tipped their loads downwards into the valley close to the hamlet of Magħtab at around the same time the British were closing their military bases in Malta in 1978.

Fast forward to the late 80s and early 90s, when the years of austere Mintoffian brand of socialism gave way to a frenzy of unbridled consumption. The goods poured in. Everyone stuffed their face in chocolates and a colour TV, threw the wrappers and old TVs in the garbage or down a cliff—and the rest is history.

Back then, very few complained about the new ‘rights’ and consumer ‘freedom’. The chains of a capitalist state, built on never-ending consumption and growth, were cast; ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’ became securely pegged to how many things you could afford to buy. For those who couldn’t afford it, loan culture set in.

Fire at maghtab

Meanwhile, as our collective waistlines grew, so did Magħtab and, by 2004, 19 million tonnes of mixed waste was dumped onto what was already a rather impressive hill. Out of sight for many, apart from the unfortunate residents of Magħtab and the occasional trip on the Coast Road, where one had to roll up the car windows and hold their breath until they drive through the hazy road. Nobody would ever know what the toxic fumes contained since there was no documentation of what was dumped in the landfill until then.

Then came the EU. Many were quite glad and enthusiastic that, once and for all, the EU will stamp its feet on this issue. Thankfully, the uncontrolled landfill(s) were closed and a number of engineered landfills were built following EU accession in 2004.

At around the same time, the EU tripped us rather badly by bringing to a halt the glass bottle return and reuse system which was so much part of our society—all in the name of free market.

Curiously, this observation was also made by the current prime minister himself whilst speaking to party supporters in Għaxaq where he referred to this decision as when “money won over the environment”. If there was one derogation that Malta should have fought tooth and nail for, this was the one. Yet, we bowed to the free market deity, and Magħtab started receiving mountains of single use plastic bottles daily on top of all the other waste.

Little or no effort was done to reduce or recycle as the landfill kept expanding. The years of austerity were still fresh in the collective memory and, thus, mentioning reduction and stemming consumption would have received a lot of blank stares at that point. Environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth Malta had been challenging successive governments to take the waste issue seriously, yet they were only delaying the crisis.

Environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth Malta had been challenging successive governments to take the waste issue seriously, yet they were only delaying the crisis.

A hyperconsumerist lifestyle, coupled by a growing number of individuals, powered by the lack of political will to tackle the issue, and bolstered by the “growth at all costs” mantra, has led us all into a very tight corner. The current economic trends have only poured fuel on an already uncontrollable fire. Accidents are prone to happen at any given time, but when systems are under intense pressure, it’s obvious that the likelihood of such incidents increase.

One of the news headlines quoted Minister Herrera saying “Magħtab Fire Wouldn’t Have Happened If We Had A Waste Incinerator”—a factually true, yet incomplete, statement. Had the waste issue been treated as it should have by the band of politicians—some of whom were almost gleefully posting images of mount Magħtab’s triumphant eruption—Malta would have been in a better position to consider other options too—or not even have to be in that position in the first place.

As the fire burnt, all sorts of accusations were fired from all sides, followed by calls for resignations, questions about procedures, all the way to whether the fumes were toxic or not. Frankly, the ones asking for resignations were the ones partly responsible for that first spark many decades ago and who treated the growth of the mountain as a measure of success of all the ġid and affluence the country was experiencing.

The problem, of course, is that all lungs function similarly, regardless of one’s partisan allegiance and of contribution to the size and content of mount Magħtab. The essential step to resolving the crisis is to stop the futile and opportunistic finger-pointing, understand the underlying causes and consider the sensible solutions.

Our prime target must be waste reduction. Systems like the organic waste separation and the bottle return schemes are highly commendable and, hopefully, will be followed by other national schemes that will reduce our waste generation in the first place. Initiatives to revive small repair shops which ran out of business due to the throwaway culture need to be encouraged and assisted—mechanisms need to be in place in order to ensure that discarding a broken item will cost more than fixing it.

Unfortunately, taking into account all the bureaucracy and commercial stakes, resisting the introduction of waste reduction measures to safeguard their profit margins, we are at least two decades too late.

As the saying goes, out of sight out of mind. Despite it sounding rudimentary, perhaps having all individuals residing in Malta spend a few days working at the landfill will bring that special awareness of our collective connection with the sacred mountainous monument to consumption. Let’s bring the good old community work, shall we?