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Our View: Creation of separate environment ministry long past due

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Staff from the environment department protesting on Friday (Christos Theodorides)

We are just two weeks away from the 11th anniversary of the one of the biggest environmental and human tragedies to hit Cyprus since 1974 and the 2005 Helios air crash, and that was the Mari munitions explosion in July 2011, but it seems nothing moved on much over the past 11 years.

The fire that broke out at a tyre storage area a couple of weeks ago due to an equipment malfunction thankfully did not claim any lives, but it did bring misery and health risks to the residents in the Vasiliko area for several days.

Without getting in too much into the blame game, and there was plenty of it going around at the House environment committee on Friday where it was discussed, although it’s hard to disagree with one deputy who said safety policies were “running on autopilot”.

It would be easy to blame the people at the department of the environment for being lazy civil servants but they staged a protest the same day to try and make people aware of what they are up against. The figures they cited are quite staggering. There are only eight inspectors assigned to more than 2,000 industries, more than 1,000 waste carriers and more than 800 large livestock units.

It’s a similar story that the forestry department employees have been pressing for several years – not enough staff and resources to do the job and prevent disasters.

There were two other protests on Friday. The Athalassa psychiatric hospital that has seen an uptick in patients, and the IT services department of the government who say half their staff has been seconded and they’re unable to fulfil commitments to a burgeoning e-government and the great fourth industrial revolution.

With all these services crying out for staff, at the same time, the palace seems to be overflowing with more so-called presidential aides and presidential undersecretaries than we can keep track of.

The staff at the environment department have quite rightly pointed out that in every other EU member state, environment now comprises the biggest portfolio of any ministry, while here, they’re still under the agriculture ministry.

Given that almost every policy nowadays is connected to the Green Deal, and the fact that so much of the existing environment needs to be cleaned up, the creation of a deputy ministry for the environment would appear to be an absolute imperative.

Our president wants Cyprus to be a regional hub for almost everything from energy to education to climate action, and on Sunday he added a firefighting coordination centre. He may talk the talk but does not walk the walk, preferring to waste millions on defence spending.

It’s incomprehensible why we do not have a separate deputy ministry for the environment at this stage considering that the government has managed to create them for tourism, shipping, welfare and culture. Perhaps this just shows where the environment really rates on the list of priorities.

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