Land use - State and impacts (Malta)

SOER 2010 Common environmental theme (Deprecated)
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SOER Common environmental theme from Malta
Land Land
Published: 30 Nov 2010 Modified: 11 May 2020

Land cover

Land-cover monitoring presents an opportunity to observe large-scale change to land cover over time. For Malta, while CORINE Land Cover Change (CLC) information assists with understanding land cover and monitoring large-scale changes over longer timeframes, the large scale (25 ha) of the grid used does not permit analysis that is sensitive enough to monitor short-term land-use change with a great deal of accuracy. The survey nevertheless provides a snapshot of Malta’s land cover in 2006 (Map 4.1).

Land cover by type (CLC 2006)

Source: MEPA

Map 4.1 Land cover by type (CLC 2006)

Agriculture remains the predominant land cover at 51 % of land area, followed by natural vegetation at 18 %, of which 84 % is drought-resistant (Table 4.1). Approximately 22 % of the islands’ 315 km2 (as per CLC resolution) is characterised by urban development, and an additional 7% is covered by industrial and commercial units, mineral extraction sites, airports, port areas, dump sites, green urban areas and sports and recreational facilities. This is chiefly concentrated in the North Eastern part of the mainland, and there are pockets of development across the Gozitan landscape, mainly in the south and central parts of that island.


Land cover type

Area (km2)


Agricultural areas



Urban areas



Forested areas



Coastal wetlands



Natural vegetation



Industrial and commercial units, mineral extraction, airports, port areas, dump sites, green urban areas and sports and recreational facilities



Source: MEPA

Table 4.1 Area and percentage of land cover by type, CLC 2006

Given the above, the changes in land cover of the Maltese Islands between CLC 2006 and CLC 2000 are minimal. The principal change, approximately 2.7 km2, or 0.85 % of the total land area, relate to the conversion of sclerophyllous vegetation, agricultural land and non-irrigated arable land to discontinuous urban fabric, industrial or commercial units, mineral extraction sites and dumping sites[B1].

Malta’s relatively high urban land cover, while attributable to its population density, raises questions about the overall efficiency of land use when viewed in the context of the latest census (2005) relating to residential occupancy. In 2005, 22.4 % of residential dwellings were permanently vacant, and only 5 % were second homes (see discussion on housing in Sub-report 1). Similar over-provision has also been observed in the commercial and industrial sectors.[1] There is significant potential for improving the overall efficiency of land use, given current over-supply of residential, commercial and industrial premises. The potential of using incentives to achieve this merits investigation.

Pressures on the countryside

Due to the small size of the islands and the density of different land uses, countryside areas are exposed to conflicting pressures. Understanding the dynamics of the countryside is intrinsic to providing measures to protect and enhance it. The principal anthropogenic pressures in countryside areas relate to agriculture and land development.


The CORINE land cover map indicates that approximately 51 % of the Maltese countryside is characterised by agricultural activity. However agriculture has a mixed legacy for environmental protection. It is agriculture that maintains the countryside, and particularly the rural landscape. Already suffering from abandonment, agricultural areas would fall further into decline without farmers maintaining the traditional landscape generally characterised by small fields demarcated by dry stone walling, and many important plant and animal species would become threatened as they have evolved to thrive in synergy with 

agriculture. But this role is not easy for the farming community to maintain due to profitability and competitiveness issues. The decreasing size of agricultural holdings, 89 % of holdings are less than 2 ha, indicates to some degree the pressures modern Maltese agriculture is under. In response, agricultural practices have often become intensified.

Intensified agriculture can have negative effects on the rural environment, either through the adoption of non-environmentally friendly practices such as the increased use of chemicals and over-pumping of ground water through illegal boreholes, or through the use of structures such as animal farms and greenhouses in sensitive areas. The number of greenhouses increased by approximately 14 % between 2000 and 2007. At the same time, and as noted in the Driving Forces Sub-report, while greenhouses tend to consume more energy to control climatic conditions than traditional farming methods, they also allow a more controlled use of water and agrochemicals. The Rural Development Programme 2007-2013 recognises the impact of agricultural intensification and seeks to encourage environmental stewardship in the farming community (see section 4.2.2 below). Other socio-environmental impacts in the rural environment that are related to agriculture include land abandonment, loss of dry-stone walls, agricultural land reclamation, blocking of countryside access, and the inappropriate design of rural buildings.


It is possible to assess changes to and pressures on countryside areas through an analysis of developments permitted outside the development zone. The principal type of development permitted relates to agriculture, including tool rooms and reservoirs, but also larger developments such as animal breeding units and fish farms. Permissions for dwellings (Figure 4.1) also represent a sizeable proportion of development in rural areas, although these only averaged 3 % of total dwelling permissions over the period 2000-2008.The share of housing development located outside the development zone has fallen by some 0.3 % annually since 2000, when it stood at 3.4 %, although it rose marginally, 2.2-2.3 % between  2007 and 2008. It is also interesting to consider the trend with regard to whether development is largely on previously developed (brownfield) or as yet undeveloped (greenfield) land. The overall trend since 2000 is for the ratio to increasingly favour brownfield land: in 2000 70 % of all development was greenfield, but in 2005 it amounted to only 40 %. However, since 2005, the percentage of development on greenfield land has slowly begun to rise, to 51 % in 2008.

Other major types of development in rural areas include quarries, access routes including roads and paths, boundary walls, and additions to already existing developments. In terms of land take, major social and community developments have had an impact over the review period due to their envisaged land requirements. Overall, the cumulative effect of development in the countryside should be closely monitored and further efforts made for it to be strictly contained.

Number of dwelling units built outside the development zone

Figure 4.1 Number of dwelling units built outside the development zoneSource: MEPA Dwellings Database


Light pollution is an important, but as yet not widely recognised, impact of development in rural areas. This affects coastal environments and areas of important natural habitats, as well as the visual character of the landscape and the built environment. The light pollution issue is briefly addressed in the Structure Plan, Local Plan and other policies.[1] PA (Planning Authority). 2002. Employment Topic Paper, Final Draft June 2002, PA, Floriana.





Filed under:

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

Filed under: SOER2010, land
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