Life on the Maltese islands has become more hectic than ever, with a construction boom snowballing to unprecedented proportions. Catering for the ever-increasing population, construction work is all around, with developments and infrastructural works popping up far and wide.

To give but one example among the many, the Malta-Gozo tunnel will start being constructed soon. This project on its own is expected to generate one million tonnes of waste.

Our small island is running out of terrestrial space, leaving developers eyeing the Maltese territorial waters next for development. Land reclamation is the process in which new land is created from the ocean, by filling the sea bed with rock and cement.

The concept is not new for Malta; we have past experiences with similar work being carried out for the construction of the Malta Freeport in Birżebbuġa as well as the ferry terminal in Ċirkewwa.

Back then, the Professional Diving Schools Association (PDSA) had lamented on the environmental implications and threats faced by the local diving industry.

It does not require a lot of imagination to picture the alarming and irreversible environmental impacts land reclamation has on the sea and all the ecosystems that dwell within it.

The long list of threats predominantly includes major reduction of biodiversity, degradation of marine habitats, decline in water quality and geological damage.

Several studies outlined by marine biologists clearly display the serious environmental implications involved in the practice of replacing sea with land, and the effect this has on the ocean and its livelihood, society and the rest of the planet.

This would be a good time to point out that the sea provides enormous bounties. Sea grass produces 70 per cent of the earth’s oxygen; the sea is home to an abundance of species; it provides food, jobs, life and entertainment, which most islanders like us can highly relate to.

Those of us who do not yet believe that the reasonably privileged lifestyle enjoyed on this island is not in most part due to our sea and its treasures should seriously reconsider their priorities.

Ill-fated species include the Posidonia oceanica (species of sea grass), Cymodocea nodosa (sea grass), Lithophaga lithophaga (date mussel) and Paracentrotus lividus (sea urchins).

Posidonia oceanica is considered as the lung of the Mediterranean Sea since it is one of the most important oxygen providers for coastal waters.

It does not require a lot of imagination to picture the alarming and irreversible environmental impacts land reclamation has on the sea

Among their many functions, Posidonia oceanica meadows play a part in stabilizing seabeds, coastal protection from storms, discouraging erosion and encouraging the deposit of sedimentary particles, while providing nurturing grounds for fish (Boudouresque et al., 2006).

Several species shelter, feed and breed in these habitats. With beneficial initiatives such as Life Baħar, the importance of this sea grass, together with other, ecologically valuable, endemic species has been emphasised even further.

As stated by the Minister of Environment José Herrera: “Now more than ever we are recognising the need to preserve our sea, which is our asset to be passed on to future generations.”

Another invaluable resource that is threatened by this proposed venture is the hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors who come to these islands specifically to appreciate the underwater beauties it provides. Malta has to date been known for its clear, pristine waters, popular with foreigners and locals alike.

The quality of our coastal waters is of integral importance and highly affects our quality of life. Unfortunately, nowadays we face undesired problems such as plastic pollution, about which the community, NGOs and business organisations collectively try to manage and reduce.

It is hard to digest the concept that our home, the sea, could be urbanised for commerce. Wildlife, fossils and historical remains, covered with concrete! Geological treasures destroyed and buried for ever.

Back in 2003, during the construction of the breakwater in Ċirkewwa, dust, rubble and debris contaminated the water with a thick white cloud of particles, despite the silt curtain which was in place.

The solution was mediocre with negligible effects, considering the power and fluidity of the sea. During these works, Ċirkewwa had endured layers of silt clogging the seabed and covering Posidonia meadows that stretched all along the coast, resulting in low visibility and unsafe conditions.

Divers recall with saddened hearts, the silty conditions that stretched all the way down to Wied iż-Żurrieq for a number of months, and the long-term effects it had on the seabed and fish.

One comes to question the environmental feasibility studies that are being carried out for this project, and whether the livelihood of our aquatic ecosystems is given its due importance. Is the impact on the whole ecosystem taken into account? Is the health of our seas a priority at all?

As underwater enthusiasts, the prospect concerns us deeply, its threat to our livelihoods and, more importantly, to our beloved Maltese coast.

The Maltese islands and our coastal territory is something to be marvelled at – in fact, we can boast that we hold several destination awards in relation to diving, with many of the sites here considered to be the best in the region. Just to provide a rough idea, in 2017, 117,300 tourists visited Malta specifically for scuba diving.

We belong to something that is bigger than ourselves, the planet works in harmonious synchronicity and connectivity. Everything in nature works with a flow of interdependence and this degree of interference can only break the cycle.

May we never forget those who will inherit this planet from us. The risks are too great to justify.

Mikela Borg is an underwater enthusiast and a dive centre owner.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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