Malta’s Island Wetlands: Small, Smaller, Smallest

2019.01.12, by Krista Farrugia/Nature Trust Malta

As the smallest island-country in the Mediterranean, it is no wonder that Malta’s wetlands are also amongst the smallest Mediterranean island wetlands featuring as part of the MedIsWet project.

The Maltese Islands, having an area of 316km2, have a semi-arid environment and therefore, by definition, water, especially surface water, is unsurprisingly scarce. The only natural water source is percolating rainwater which collects in limestone aquifers. There are no mountains or lakes, few perennial streams and only some minor springs. Perhaps that is why, no matter the status or condition, at least when one initially approaches it, any area retaining water is often met with gasps of wonder by locals and visitors alike.

During our first field surveys we visited various types of wetlands or remnants thereof. Most of the sites visited showed clear evidence of the various threats and pressures.

Some of the relatively larger sites are protected at European level (Natura 2000) and a couple are also protected at international level (Ramsar sites; photo 1). The Natura 2000 sites have had management plans drawn up that are targeted at improving the conservation status of important habitats and species, however small in current area and (population) size. Our visits to some of these sites revealed that not all management plan measures and actions are being implemented, five years on from their publication. This raises questions as to why not? What are the limiting factors? How can we improve upon this?

Other sites visited are protected at a national level. The locally protected sites, in particular, seem to have been long forgotten or perhaps considered too small and/or insignificant or too disturbed to bother about now. Such sites include Qalet Marku (protected locally as an Area of Ecological Importance and a Site of Scientific Importance) and L-Għadira ż-Żghira (an Area of Ecological Importance, a Site of Scientific Importance; also part of a wider Bird Sanctuary and Natura 2000 site; photo 2).

Photo 1. View towards L-Għadira, a Natura 2000 and Ramsar site (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 2. Għadira z-Zgħira, potential site for restoration (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Based on observations during the field surveys conducted so far, and also based on previous experience with conservation in general, clearly one of the most pressing issues is land use. Malta’s size, population density (it is the seventh most densely populated country in the world) and standard of living have resulted in great pressures on the environment, mainly related to past and more recent impending urban development that does not seem to be waning any time soon (photo 3). Some mistakes date back to the past, pre-1990, before proper planning mechanisms were in place, which resulted in problems such as urban sprawl, abandonment of agricultural land, increased soil erosion, loss of habitats, loss of countryside, increased quarrying activity, increased deforestation, as reported by Schembri and Lanfranco (1990). Malta subsequently published a Structure Plan, a national planning document and Local Plans that focused on different areas. The latest planning document that is currently in effect is Malta’s Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development.

Photo 3. Għajn Klin, Gozo, supporting a large population of Discoglossus pictus. Buildings located on higher ground are visible in the reflection of the water (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 4. Il-Qammieħ natural rock pools (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

But despite these obstacles, rather than consider these sites insignificant or write them off, what about the potential to improve their structure and restore their function? It was identified during the surveys that in effect extensive intervention is not really required for some of these sites and significant improvements could be made with relatively little effort. If enough such sites are targeted, could we improve the overall benefits to be accrued from these sites? A stronger, healthier network of albeit small, wetlands could potentially result in synergistic benefits that could be felt on a nationally and potentially even wider scale.

In the wake of past pressures and looming new and ongoing ones, not only should we push for active restoration efforts, but specific protection of wetlands in the Maltese Islands, as defined under the Ramsar Convention, should also be considered to further strengthen administrative and legislative mechanisms. Such additional protection, it is hoped, could be a direct outcome from this project. At the very least, we have to try.

In conclusion, one of the most surprising sites visited was perhaps the natural rock pools located on the coast at Il-Qammieħ (photo 4), which gave us a glimpse at how the coastal areas dominated by salt pans (photo 5) might have looked before human interventions. At Il-Qammieħ, we felt remote enough to consider, with some imagination, that we might be the only people on the island (photo 6). In the words of Francis of Assisi:

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

Photo 5. Example of salt pans from northern Gozo (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 6. Il-Qammieħ – only people on Malta, taking shelter from the rain (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Balearic Islands: 15 million tourists and 350 wetlands in 5,000 sq km

2018.10.13, by Carlota Viada/WWF Spain

Tourists in the Balearic Islands outnumber the remaining wetlands by far. Archipelago’s economy is based on the “sea-sun” model and mass tourism continues growing since the 60s. In 2017 the islands received 15 million tourists and the demand for natural resources (such as water and space) was immense.

It was the time to save the large wetlands

In 1973, the first local conservation NGO (the GOB, Balearic Ornithological Group) emerged, and among its objectives were the protection of the main Balearic wetlands.

The largest marshes and salines, hosting big flocks of birds and big areas of natural vegetation were the priority, especially at a period of extensive urbanization and in the absence of conservation laws. Indicatively, one of the authors of the first brochure for the protection of Albufera (one of the most important Mallorcan wetlands), was later hired as the lawyer/representative of companies with main purpose to help them fight against the declaration of the Natural Park.

In 1978, 30,000 signatures were collected - almost no one opposed to the protection of Albufera - and this victory was the first protest action of the newborn Balearic conservationist movement. 10 years later, the best part of this area was acquired by the Spanish Government and declared a Natural Park, the first in the Balearic Islands.

In 1983 the state of the Autonomies was declared in Spain, and the Balearic Region started with the natural sites’ protection in full debate. The main economy of the islands – tourism - was at stake. However, it was necessary to avoid the destruction of the rest of the wetlands and other emblematic sites. In 1991, a Law on urban planning in natural sites (known as LEN) was approved, which allowed the safeguarding of many but not all of them: the small wetlands were left under the shelter - or rather, the helplessness - of the City councils and as a result, progressively they were totally disappeared.

Photo 1. First campaign to protect a natural area in the Balearic Islands, aimed at the largest wet area that was threatened by urbanization: 'Why do we want to save the Albufera' in 1978, edited by the GOB-Mallorca.

Is it time for small wetlands?

The main wetlands of the Balearic islands were inventoried in 1991, although it has not been until 2017, when WWF Spain has made a complete catalogue of all natural and artificial wetlands and ponds of more than 0.10 hectares. These wetlands were inventoried with in situ field visits, while all data will soon be made public and fully accessible by all interesting citizens and relevant stakeholders. This detailed inventory has unveiled 350 wetlands, a number that is surprising high as previous efforts had given less numbers; obviously due to the focus on the large wetland systems.

However, not everything was rosy. During the fieldwork, it was hopeless to see how many small wetlands disappeared under the cement during the last decades, especially in the mouths of torrents. A string of small jewels full of life has been lost. On the positive side, other set of natural wetlands is still there, not statutory declared as protected sites but at least not urbanized, thanks to the LEN (the urban planning law of 1991) and/or thanks to the delineation of the Public maritime-terrestrial domain. In addition, the designation of Salobrar de Campos (another large wetland) as Natural Park was achieved in 2018!

Photo 2. Canal de Cala Saona (code: FOR008). A small temporary wetland in Formentera, not protected. A small oasis, despite the large hotel nearby and a crowded beach at the end of the stream (C. Viada/WWF Spain)

Photo 3. Bassa de Cala Pudenta (code: MEN023). The bad smells of the putrefaction of the posidonia, has made this coastal wetland remain without alteration or human presence, in the north of Menorca, an island declared as Biosphere Reserve. It's included in the Balearic River Basin Management Plan, as a result of the inventory (C. Viada/WWF Spain)

So far, the WWF Spain’s inventory has been useful to:

  • Value the small sheets of water that hold a significant amount of biodiversity, normally unknown (dragonflies, frogs, birds, etc).
  • Include four wetland sites in the Balearic River Basin Management Plan.
  • Select the best artificial wetlands for the reintroduction of endangered duck species by the Species Protection Service of the Balearic Autonomous Government (with the assistance of SEO/BirdLife).

It is expected that when the inventory is officially launched and made available online, more positive results will come: all Balearic wetlands will be revealed to the public, more research efforts will be made aiming to discover the hidden biodiversity of the small oases, restoration efforts will emerge while the State will be finally persuaded to promote their real protection despite their size. This last is an emergency! We've lost enough. We don’t afford to lose not even a minuscule area. We don’t afford to make the same mistakes and further mortgage our future.

Two pipelines and the pearl of Gökçeada

2018.06.29, by Eylül Dizdaroğlu/WWF Turkey

"In the depths of the sea on the cliff

Between Tenedos and craggy Imbros

There is a cave, wide gaping

Poseidon who made the earth tremble,

stopped the horses there."

Homer, The Iliad.

When you arrive at Gökçeada and start driving from the port Kuzulimanı, you would easily recognise the tiny watercourses and small valleys. The largest island of Turkey, Gökçeada, known as Imbros in Greek, holds the largest amount of freshwater sources among all the islands of Turkey and of course, has the most important island wetlands of the country.

For most people in Turkey, there is a few types of small wetlands: ‘swamps’, ‘marshes’ or ‘streams’. These small wetlands does not even have a name, meaning that they are not even recognized by people. This was the case for most wetlands in Gökçeada. Most of the locals living in Gökçeada are coming from various parts of Turkey, they are not islanders for generations, and as a result they don’t have a deep relationship with their environment. Luckily, when we went there for the project in June, ‘Conservation of Island Wetlands of Turkey’, we had already worked on the map so knew where to search for the wetlands of the island. However, we had no idea about the situation of these wetlands as they were not officially defined except for the lagoon. Were they still there, were they in a good condition, were they polluted or not, were they permanent or temporary? I want to tell you about the most surprising two sites and two different situations we encountered, during our Gökçeada survey.

Tepeköy village, meaning ‘top-village’ in Turkish, is named after its location around the highest peak of the island, no doubt, after the island was included into Turkish territory. In the foothills of the village, there is a temporary freshwater pond (photo 1). Not easily recognized on map, it was found by chance when walking towards another wetland, closer to the sea.

Photo 1. A temporary freshwater pond north of Tepeköy village (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

The clay pipeline, used by the former Greek villagers until 60s-70s, was there, broken, in a total harmony with nature (photo 2). The small temporary pond is a remnant, inside abandoned farmlands in which basic vegetables and wheat were cultivated. As these gardens and farmlands were not in use anymore, the area was totally covered by Sarcopoterium spinosum and the walk towards the next wetland was a real adventure, especially as our clothes selection was a totally failure (photo 3)! Under the strong sunlight of June, blooding on our legs, finally we arrived at the end of a terrace.

Photo 2. An old pipeline, used to transfer water, now broken (E. Dizdaroğlu/WWF Turkey)

Photo 3. Trying to find our path for the next wetlands through a labyrinth of spines (E. Dizdaroğlu/WWF Turkey)

Below was the small pond we had been searching for- one of the most beautiful sceneries of Mediterranean: A very small, untouched freshwater pond, partly covered with Rannunculus sp, surrounded by Typha sp. with the blue seas of Mediterranean lying behind (photo 4). We could hear the sounds of frogs from the pond. We named this wetland as the ‘pearl of Gökçeada’ with a little bit of humour. This pond did not have a shelf to protect it, but an army of Sarcopoterium spinosum that would not simply let anyone in.

Photo 4. The pearl of Gökçeada, an untouched small freshwater pond, protected by a dense "fence" of spines (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

This ‘pearl of Gökçeada’ helped us feel better and hopeful, as we had encountered a depressive scenery the previous day. In the southwest of the island, it's the Uğurlu village. A comparatively new village with a lot of new buildings. When arriving at the estuary, the first sight was perfect! 30 turtles enjoying the sun, some with their heads out, looking around (photo 5). However, some meters after, a total destruction emerged: bare burnt branches of Vitex sp. and reeds that had been burnt and cut. In the middle of the bare ground there were two ditches (photo 6), while an unpleasant smell covered the air and a pipeline appeared. Along the pipeline the scenery never changed and when we reached the beach throughout the increasing smell, saw the sewage directly flowing off to the sea. After a short investigation, it was revealed that the pipeline was built by an goat farm and this was the way of "treating and managing" their wastewater (photo 7). By directly disposing their wastes in the sea. And above that, by destroying one of the most important reed beds of the island. It was clear that there was no chance to turn the clock back and bring this fragmented habitat back- but birds were still singing there, still having the highest species diversity for birds among all wetlands of the island. This means there is still hope to restore -at least partially- the area.

Photo 5. Some Mauremys rivulata individuals, resting in the riverbank (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 6. A canal, opened to cover the waste pipeline (E. Dizdaroğlu/WWF Turkey)

Photo 7. Where before was a reed bed, now stagnant water appear (E. Dizdaroğlu/WWF Turkey)

There might be a lot of inferences to make from the two different pipelines and a naturally protected paradise. Never-ending contradictions of traditional lifestyles and modernisation, results of socio-cultural transformations, ignorance of public, lack of management by authorities, etc. However, the obvious fact binding these altogether and driving us to the solution is that it is all about what kind of a world we want to live inside. We can start to protect our wetlands by learning about them, defining the borders, by calling them with a name. Just like getting to know a person, when we know them deeper and recognize their needs, then we can make a change to help them.

Opinion: Sebkhas & “Sebkhas”. Ignorance, mismanagement & human stupidity

2018.05.16, by Thanos Giannakakis/WWF Greece

Normally, at first, environmental problems come as a result of ignorance and the lack of knowledge. For example, when first appeared nobody could predict, that some decades later plastics would threat biodiversity and consequently our lives. People were so fascinated by the new perspective that nobody could see far into the future. In other words… we didn’t know.

Mismanagement follows that first phase of ignorance. It’s when knowledge has been established but people refuse or need time to adjust or maybe they haven’t yet developed the appropriate mechanisms and continue to make the same mistakes. People in Kerkennah Islands seem to be at this second stage regarding water and coastal management. Kerkennah Islands at the north of Sfax in Tunisia is a complex of 2 main islands and many other smaller. Local people were always fishing for a living with techniques (photos 1, 2, 3) well adapted to the really swallow waters and the big fluctuations of the sea water level (tides).

Photo 1. Kerkennah felouka (flouka) (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 2. Octopus traps (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 3. The Charfia is emblematic of the islands’ artisanal fishing (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 4. Sebkhas are infinite in Kerkennah islands (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 5. Phoenix dactylifera (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 6. Small reservoir, fully adjusted to the environment (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

It seems that during the past, agriculture was really limited on the islands; extended sebkhas (the Tunisian version of salt marshes) dominate the area (photo 4) while in the drier places palm trees are the dominant species (photo 5). For that reason people’s water needs were covered by small scale reservoirs inside houses or in the fields (photo 6). However, the last years, things have changed dramatically. New settlements are constantly created (with no planning), and even though fishing remains the main economic activity, cultivations of olive trees have been appearing and continue to expand.

But let’s talk about sebkhas and I’ll come back in a while, trying to connect the dots. Sebkhas as already mentioned, are covering a significant area. Normally they extend from the coast to some part of the interior (all the islands are flat) and from that point on, palm trees progressively replace the halophyllus vegetation. However, since some years ago, locals have noticed that sebkhas seem to expand, whereas where once was their limit, now dead palm trees are standing (photo 7). Note that a palm tree in Kerkennah islands is an iconic symbol that has been extensively used by the fishermen for fishing and its cut down is prohibited by law, so the picture of dead trees is in many ways dramatic.

Photo 7. Dead palm trees can be seen everywhere, especially at the limits of the salt marshes (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

So, sebkhas are expanding, i.e. wetlands are expanding in Kerkennah islands and locals are very angry as salt marshes are of no use and they are losing “precious” land. While I was on the islands with WWF Tunisia colleagues, working on the MedIsWet Tunisian inventory, we heard many times that the main reason responsible for sebkhas’ expansion is sea level rise! Well, that could be an explanation in … 2050, but I presume that today the reason for that is “hidden” closer.

Settlements and agriculture expansion need more water resources than in the past and while a desalination plant exists, most probably groundwater is also used to cover the needs (unfortunately the latest groundwater extraction data are from 2005). If that’s the case then groundwater extraction leads to sea water intrusion and consequently to the “expansion of sebkhas”. The drawing below is rather simplistic but it depicts the case clearly.

Drawing 1. Pumping leads to the expansion of Sebkhas (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Can these “new salt marshes” be defined as sebkhas? In my opinion, the answer is definitively no. These new areas are the result of bad practices and an indication of a form of desertification. Extreme weather events as a result of the climate change could also add to the aforementioned mismanagement.

However, people still believe that the expansion of sebkhas is not human driven and they put a curse on that. And they continue to “develop” without taking into account the islands’ carrying capacity. And apart from the mismanagement of the water resources, they build new houses without planning (photo 8). And in order to continue building they have also invested in walls, barriers (photo 9) between the cities and the sea to prevent tides and floodings. But this has led to additional problems and now they complain about odors and mosquitos. And they are using the real sebkhas, the ones that stand as real barriers from the intrusion of the sea, as landfills (photo 10).

And then, having all these in mind, I step back and think of similar cases in other places in the Mediterranean that I have visited with the MedIsWet project this past year. And I cannot stop myself from thinking about human stupidity…

Photo 8. Building without planning is a real problem (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 9. Barriers to "protect" the houses from the sea have been built (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Photo 10. Extended landfills in the natural Sebkhas (T. Giannakakis/WWF Greece)

Mediterranean Island Wetlands Project

Conservation of the island wetlands of the Mediterranean Basin