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Malta: The Land and Natural Resources
Malta is an island country in the Mediterranean Sea. A British colony from 1814, it became an independent Commonwealth nation in 1964 and a republic in 1974. Malta comprises the islands of Malta (95 square miles, or 246 sq km), Gozo (26 square miles, or 67 sq km), Kemmuna (Comino; 1 square mile, or 2.6 sq km), and the uninhabited islets of Kemmunett (Cominotto) and Filfla.
Like Singapore, Malta has position but virtually no magnitude. Its historic significance has stemmed from its location, commanding as it does the narrow stretch of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. By offering the seemingly inexhaustible resources of its strategically positioned, fine natural harbor to the British Royal Navy, the Maltese population thrived for a century and a half; it grew until Malta had one of the densest populations in Europe (2,715 per square mile, or 1,044 per sq km). But as Britain began to reduce its naval presence there after 1959, Malta had to find alternative sources of economic support. By the time Britain completed its military withdrawal on March 31, 1979, Malta's Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had succeeded in securing substantial foreign aid to bolster the economy.
As the "navel of the Inland Sea" since Homeric times, Malta's mid-Mediterranean position has bequeathed a history dominated by outside interests. Malta has been a bridgehead between the Christian and Muslim worlds, a stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, and a port of call between East and West.
The Maltese population, artificially enlarged by the country's garrison function, has long exceeded the capacity of the island's meager natural resources to support it. There are no industrial raw materials, although oil exploration has begun in the sea between Malta and Libya. Limestone is the chief geological outcrop, yielding a thin, infertile soil that accumulates in pockets between pavements of porous bare rock. The limestone, however, is an excellent building stone. Easily quarried and initially soft to work, it hardens on exposure. It gives character to the islands' architecture.
Topographically Malta consists of a series of low plateaus, tilted downward toward the northeast. The highest areas—over 800 feet (250 meters)—are near the dramatic cliffs of the west coast. There are no mountains or rivers. The coastline is well indented, especially on the east where Valletta, the capital, stands on a peninsula between a complex network of sheltered creeks. Most of the coast is rocky, but there are sandy coves in the north.
The climate is typically Mediterranean. Summers are dry, sunny, and warm. Winters are mild, with wet periods. The average rainfall is 18 inches (550 mm) but highly variable. In some years less than 10 inches (250 mm) falls. Drought is a severe problem. Crop yields are uncertain, except where irrigation exists, and water resources are diminishing in both quantity and quality.