Water is a vital resource that sustains all life, be it human, animal or plant. It plays a fundamental role in the climate regulation cycle, and is also an indispensable resource for the economy.
Approximately 75% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. The oceans contain 97.5% of the earth’s water, the land 2.4%, and the atmosphere holds less than 0.001%. Only 1% of the earth’s water is available for drinking. All waters are linked through the water cycle in a dynamic equilibrium.
The conservation and sustainable management of aquatic and marine ecosystems are required to ensure that the biodiversity they support and the ecosystem services they provide are not impacted.
Malta’s inland surface waters – such as freshwater streams and pools – and transitional waters such as wetlands – are few and unique in character. They provide habitats for rare and vulnerable species as well as maintaining natural landscapes. In view of the importance of these natural areas, a number of these and the areas in which they are found have been afforded protection through various designations, including Bird Sanctuaries, Natura 2000 sites and Water Bodies under the Water Framework Directive. These waters are vulnerable to many pressures that jeopardise their quality and the services they provide. Such pressures are primarily ‘man-made’, or anthropogenic, in nature and include pollution from littering, nutrients or pesticides in run-off from agricultural land, the introduction of alien species that compete for resources, the excessive use of fresh water that depletes the resource itself, and development that disrupts the water cycle or may obliterate the water body itself.
Our marine waters are an intrinsic part of our life on an island state, surrounding us and extending from the coast to the deep waters of Malta’s continental shelf. Marine waters provide sustenance in the form of fish and seafood, as well as water for desalination that is subsequently used as drinking water and in industry. Pollutants discharged into marine waters are broken down or filtered by organisms, or diluted to levels that are not harmful. Habitats such as sea grass meadows and wetlands protect against coastal erosion and floods, while providing shelter and food for a diversity of species, as do other marine habitats such as sea caves and reefs; in view of their importance for biodiversity, various areas have been designated as Marine Protected Areas for key habitats and marine species. Last, but certainly not least, these waters are an intrinsic part of Malta’s landscape and way of life, providing space for recreation and supporting diverse economic sectors including fisheries, shipping, and tourism.
These waters are however subject to many pressures from the economic and recreational sectors that they support. Excessive exploitation of marine resources, discharges of pollutants in quantities that are too much to be adequately broken down or diluted, littering of waste that persists in the marine environment, and development that destroys habitats or interferes with the hydrodynamics that support biodiversity, are all pressures that can degrade the marine environment, at times irreversibly.
Malta is committed to protect its waters and ensure sustainability of Malta’s water resources in a holistic manner. This is achieved through cycles of assessment, management and monitoring of our waters, in line with national legislation that implements the requirements of European legislation – primarily the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive – and other international commitments such as the Barcelona Convention.
Assessment, management and monitoring of our waters adopts an ecosystem approach that recognises the need for integrated management and aspires to maintain the natural structure and functioning of ecosystems. This approach requires consideration of an ecosystem in its entirety rather than focusing on individual key species or habitats without considering the wider context, and to take into account interactions between all components of an ecosystem – habitats, species, food webs, water quality, hydrography, climate, as well as human activities that can put pressure on these ecosystems and negatively impact one or more of the ecosystem components, which in turn can then lead to a deterioration of the whole ecosystem.