Malta is on course to witness its driest year ever, and the island is seeing so little rain it might qualify as a desert, according to marine biologist Alan Deidun. 

“One of the definitions of a desert is an area which receives less than 250 mm of rain a year, and Malta has received much less so far,” the University of Malta professor said.

The Met Office said that, since the start of the rainfall year, which begins on September 1, 173.2mm of rain has been recorded in Malta. 

Between September and January, there is usually an average rainfall of 390.1mm, it said.  And, since August, each month has seen significantly less rainfall than the norm.

October was a record dry month, with 0.2 mm of precipitation recorded. On average, 77.6 mm of rain is recorded in October. 

September, November, December and January were also much drier than average. 

The driest year ever recorded was 1961 when Malta received only 274.2 mm of rain but this year is on track to beat that, Deidun said. 

“The dry conditions we are seeing this year are nothing short of incredible; if you consider that autumn is generally the wettest time of the year, there isn’t much hope for much rain in the coming months,” Deidun said.

A 2022 NSO study by Prof Charles Galdies shows that Malta’s average rainfall has decreased by 10.3 mm every decade since 1952. 

The study, The State of the Climate, found that Malta has had extended consecutive drought years, especially since 2000. 

It also said that annual rainfall in Malta is highly variable. 

Malcolm Borg, who heads Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, said farmers are “severely affected” by the lack of rain.

Wheat farms, which make up almost two-thirds of Malta’s agricultural land, are especially encountering problems since many do not have access to other sources of water besides rain, he said. 

“Wheat does not need much water, so rainfall used to be enough for the crop but, now, there is so little rain that the crop will not grow properly,” Borg said. 

He said wheat farms generally do not have boreholes that pump up groundwater or access to “new water” since they do not need it.

Since the start of the rainfall year, which begins on September 1, 173.2mm of rain has been recorded

“New water” is highly polished reclaimed water, which can be used for agriculture. 

Those with access to the water table are not in the clear, Borg said.

“Watering crops means extra costs, and in a sector like agriculture, where profit margins are so small, that can be devastating,” he said. 

Borg said that increasing the number of boreholes is also not a good idea. 

The excessive use of groundwater can deplete freshwater resources and lead to the pumping of seawater, which cannot be used to water crops.

Hydrologist Marco Cremona said droughts are a “double whammy” for Malta’s underground water reserves. 

“Periods of drought in winter not only do not provide rainwater for refilling but farmers have to resort to even more pumping of groundwater to make good for the absence of rain. Double whammy,” he said. 

Besides less rainfall, less rain is seeping into the water table, he said. 

“There is a lack of opportunity for the rainwater to enter the rock because built-up areas have replaced fields, and infrastructure meant to temporarily collect the water to let it seep in the rock has not been maintained, such as dams in valleys and soakaways on arterial roads,” he said.

The over-pumping of groundwater also persists, “possibly at a higher rate than ever”, he added. 

So, what are the solutions?

Deidun believes we need to be frugal with water. 

“We should conserve water much more and think twice about water-guzzling projects such as car washes,” he said. 

While Borg said that new water should be given to farmers who produce food and not to anyone who simply has a plot of land. 

“A lot of new water is being wasted unnecessarily,” Borg said. 

As it stands, farmers in Gozo, the south-east of Malta and parts of the north have access to new water. Farmers in the southwest and west areas with many fields do not have access to new water. 

“Ideally, that should change,” Borg said. 

He also said that reverse osmosis plants should be built soon to turn salty groundwater into fresh water.

Lastly, crop varieties that need less water should be planted. 

“For example, if a variety of tomato needs less water, we should plant that,” he said. 

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