We live in a small country which is heavily light polluted. Measurements by the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy (ISSA) suggest that the Milky Way is observable from less than 2% of the area of mainland Malta. The situation in Gozo is a bit better, undoubtedly aided by the fact that a number of coastal areas had been designated as Dark Sky Heritage Areas (DSHAs). One of these sites is Dwejra.
However, Dwejra’s night sky has been threatened for a long time. Woes with light pollution here started way back in 2007, when approval was issued for an “interpretation centre” (PA/06447/06) which, of course, had to be accompanied by a catering facility. For how could you possibly focus on learning about Dwejra if you were about to faint from hunger? And so it was that an interpretation centre was buried underneath a restaurant. Logical. And once the interpretation centre would close for the night, the restaurant would remain open. Also logical.
As has been previously reported (e.g. here), the same restaurant had previously been refused a permit three times within the space of two years, but it was approved in 2007 (and, following revisions, in 2010; PA/02418/09) when it was bundled up along with an interpretation centre as part of the Dwejra Heritage Park. So that is all it took to sanction a restaurant in a sensitive site: dubbing the site a ‘Heritage Park’. These decisions have always been very logical.
Assurances were made that the site’s sensitivity would be respected. And yet, problems kept cropping up. Over the years, this place has seen it all, from rope lighting to a blindingly bright vending machine (in breach of Condition 8 of the 2010 permit), with the authorities stepping in to tackle the various infringements.
Then, in 2017 a development application came along (PA/05372/17) that read:
“Proposed development within existing site; Installation of canopy to match existing canopy in order to provide shade and protection from adverse weather, installation of lights, to place tables and chairs within existing site and installation of sign.”
A lot could be said about all this, but let us stick to the lighting here. It is there for all to see: “installation of lights”.
ISSA was one of the objectors amongst many. The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) did not recommend in favour. The Planning Authority refused to issue a permit. The case then went on to be heard by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT).
ISSA’s arguments were refused on the grounds that an engineer’s report stated that the lighting is conformant with 'Condition 7’ of the permit (which condition is quoted in the EPRT report). And yet, ISSA’s night sky measurements (as part of a nation-wide study) showed that even with the existing lighting, night sky brightness had more than doubled. But what would astronomers know about measuring light in the sky? This result was presented to the EPRT. It was ignored, because all was deemed to be fine according to ‘Condition 7’.
So let me talk about this ‘Condition 7’ from the 2010 permit document. It reads as follows:
"External lighting of the structure should be kept to a minimum, and should consist exclusively of low-key intruder-triggered downlighters of low wattage. Globes, uplighters, etc. shall not be installed. Lighting under the canopy should be kept to the bare minimum and lighting of surrounding areas is strictly prohibited."
Right. First of all, when one downloads the relevant document, they can see that this quote is actually found under 'Condition 6’ ('Lighting Installations’) not 'Condition 7’, suggesting that the EPRT board members did not even open the original Planning Authority permit document, but merely copied the quotation from the reply provided to them by the PA, where this mistake was also made. Originally, the mistake was in the applicant's document itself, specifically in Plan 67b, and it was carried over. The level of scrutiny exhibited by the EPRT is truly stunning, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
Secondly - and crucially - if the lighting was truly conformant with this condition, it would be intruder-triggered. And yet, the lighting in question is always switched on. It is not a security light. It turns on at sun down and stays on. It is continuous lighting. One could say that it is in a state of perpetual intrusion. This, in itself, is already in breach of the 2010 permit’s conditions. To add insult to injury, despite the title of the 2017 application explicitly saying "installation of lights", in Plan 67b a note says that the "Proposed changes being proposed to the existing approved lighting (PA/02418/09 condition 7) consist of just the elimination of the intruder trigger." Was there ever one to begin with, given that the lights are always on?!
Thirdly, it boggles the mind how it can be agreed that the lighting is being "kept to the bare minimum" if it is brightening the night sky to the extent measured by ISSA.
And lest you forget, as I have pointed out before, the site in question is designated a Dark Sky Heritage Area under Policy GZ-DARK-1 of the (MEPA) 2006 Gozo and Comino Local Plan. This policy states that in such areas:
"reflective signs shall be employed to guide driving at night, whilst the installation of lighting which is not related to aerial or maritime navigation, shall be strongly discouraged.”
Consequently, one simply has to ask:
How, exactly, do these lights serve the purpose of “aerial or maritime navigation”?
Oh, and needless to say, the site in question is an Outside Development Zone (ODZ).
In case it was not clear where this was going, let me spell it out: following a number of appeal sittings spread over a year and three months, the EPRT has ordered that the PA’s decision for refusal be overturned.
Now, you see, when others witness blatant disregard for our natural heritage, can you blame them when they begin to ask themselves: if others got away with it, why can’t I also?
And so it has begun. Nowadays the Inland Sea is oftentimes lit up. The beauty of a star-peppered night sky is slowly but steadily fading from Dwejra. And soon enough, if all this persists, children will learn about the stars from books, but will have to imagine what they might look like.
Once upon a time you could witness a star-studded sky from Dwejra, and the Milky Way would be seen arching across the sky.
Alas, I fear that this is what we shall be telling future generations. A time might come when the sight described above will have been regaled to memories of the halcyon days of Dwejra. And that time might be sooner than we think.
Nevertheless, I shall not end this on a negative note.
The EPRT decision document says that there will be no additional lighting beyond that which is already conformant with the conditions of the 2010 permit, which they quote. This means that:
The lighting, as it is, is:
So it breaches both of these points. The EPRT urges the relevant authorities to continue their scrutiny to ensure that the conditions of the 2010 permit are adhered to. So the authorities, at this point, should indeed take note of the above two points and take appropriate action.
Needless to say, the above exceptions should not even have been allowed in the first place in 2010, since this lighting is not "related to aerial or maritime navigation" as specified in policy GZ-DARK-1, but that is another point altogether.
Dwejra’s environment remains under numerous threats. If we give up, it will be lost. We have to maintain our efforts to continue protecting this site as best as we can. If we do not, the below sight, images of which I have enjoyed sharing with you all, will soon be a thing of the past.
Partial List of Related Articles that have appeared in the media in the past
Thanks to all who packed the hall this evening to hear my talk about Dwejra at Cafe Scientifique. Now it's up to each and every one of you to continue spreading the word!
Here are some pictures from the event, thanks to Colleen Bower.
A photograph I captured of Dwejra's night sky with a view to increase awareness of the need to protect the dark sky heritage of this site has made it to the front page of a local newspaper, The Malta Independent (20th July 2017), helping to spread the word about the importance of conserving this aspect of Dwejra. By engaging with the public we can all help ensure it can be enjoyed by future generations to come.
The caption reads:
"This picture, taken by Joseph Caruana, shows the splendour of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, as viewed from Dwejra in Gozo. Due to the widespread problem of light pollution, Dwejra is one of the last remaining sites on the Maltese islands from where one can observe the beauty of the night sky. For this reason, along with a number of other coastal areas in Gozo and Comino, Dwejra is designated as a dark sky heritage area, meaning that its dark skies are protected and installation of lighting is not allowed. Nevertheless, encroaching light pollution from the rest of Gozo (e.g. via improperly designed lighting and the continued illumination of churches and monuments throughout the whole night), and infringement of regulations, mean that this pristine view of the night sky is constantly under threat. By spreading the word and striving to educate the public, we can all ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy Dwejra as a window to our beautiful universe."
Direct Link to newspaper:
You may now watch this new, short video clip that I have put together for the Dwejra Steering Committee, showcasing some of the beauty of the site of Dwejra. You may read more about the aspects highlighted in this clip on the various pages of this website.
This is my letter published in the Times of Malta on the 12th of March 2017, emphasising the need to protect all the beauty that remains - and is often overlooked - at Dwejra. The Azure Window was a beautiful feature of the site, but Dwejra is much more than this.
Direct link to letter: