The Malta Independent 8 August 2020, Saturday

‘Frar ifawwar’, yet Malta is going through a dry spell

Karl Azzopardi Sunday, 23 February 2020, 11:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

What is usually considered to be one of the coldest and wettest months of the year has turned out to be the fifth driest January since 1923.

According to recent data released by the Met Office, January only saw 15mm of rain, with temperatures averaging around 13.2˚C.

This weather has persisted through the month of February, which has so far seen nothing but sunshine and warm temperatures. Undoubtedly, this has had an adverse effect on farmers, who depend on rainwater to enable them to get on with their agricultural work.

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The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to Malcolm Borg, Coordinator of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi and Deputy Director of the Centre for Agriculture, Aquatics and Animal Sciences at MCAST, who expressed concern about the impact that the warm climate is having on Maltese agriculture.

“Since farming is defined by the nurturing of something which is alive and depends on water to survive, farmers will always be affected by a lack of water,” he said. He pointed out that there are three principal effects that this drought is having, beginning with the effect it has on the land itself.

“There are two types of agriculture: the first relating to non-irrigated land,” he explained. “This type uses only rainwater and mainly consists of wheat which, most of the time, is used to feed cows and goats. Therefore, a large percentage of the food that the milk sector needs to feed its animals comes from wheat that is grown in Malta.”

The milk sector will take a huge blow if wheat stops growing. Workers will have to import wheat from abroad which, in turn, has an impact on their profit margins. 

“The wheat sector has a large influence on the milk sector as well as the production of cheeselets from goats’ milk – a traditional food that is part of Malta’s identity,” Borg said.

The second type of agriculture is irrigated land, which uses water from wells and aquifers to complement the larger supply that some fruit and vegetables require. This means that rainwater is not enough to enable them to grow and the situation becomes more challenging when there is almost no rainfall, as is the case this year.

“Because of this lack of rainwater, farmers are having to use even more water from aquifers,” said Borg. “This means that if a tomato plant – for the sake of argument – needs 10 litres of water a day and a percentage of that water usually comes from rain, more aquifer water will need to be pumped.”

The result is an increase in expenditure on electricity for farmers who need to pump water from under the ground. “This eats away at the farmers’ profit margin, which is already very low,” Borg explained.

This, in turn, leads to the third effect about which he is concerned. “Without rainwater, wells are not being refilled so farmers are trying to pump water from underground but there is no water to extract. In turn, the more water we pump, the higher the risk of making aquifer water salty, which makes it less suitable for watering crops,” he explained.

Asked if trees are also affected by the lack of rainwater, Borġ said that, at this time of the year, trees are dormant so they are affected to a lesser extent. Nevertheless, they will still be weaker when the time comes for them to start producing fruit, once summer arrives.

This newsroom also asked how the consumer will be affected by this situation.

Borġ said: “If the supply is not enough, the law of supply and demand means that prices will rise. However, imported fruit and vegetables might keep the prices stable,” he said, adding that Malta has a free market and does not depend only on the local market.

The problem lies in the fact that Malta is not the only country being affected in such a way. “If we take Sicily as an example, a country from which we get a considerable quantity of supplies, it is also experiencing a lack of rainwater, although not to the same degree.

“Looking at this phenomenon from a global perspective, sooner or later the price of crops will rise. Extreme weather events are the worst things to happen where agriculture is concerned, be it a drought or flooding such as the UK has experienced.”

Asked what needs to be done in order to remedy the damage, Borġ said that the solution lies in technology, research and political will.

“We have to learn how to adapt to this situation more efficiently and help farmers by providing them with the right tools and technology,” he explained. “They need to use new systems that make better use of Malta’s water supply and mitigate the expense that farmers face when using water – these are systems that are being used abroad.”

With regard to political will, Borġ said that it is always questionable when it comes to the agricultural sector. He believes that the pillars of this sector are so eroded that people lack the energy to fight the phenomenon.

“Both politicians and farmers – who are seeing these changes – seem to lack the energy to fight this fight due to the number of other problems that the farming  sector is facing,” he explained.

“This includes issues regarding the farmers’ market (pitkali), the use of pesticides and the lack of people willing to take over agricultural work once the current farmers reach retirement age.”

 

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