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AMBIENTE-2Winemaking could be seriously compromised by Malta’s looming desertification, which would also render freshwater swimming pools unviable and change the nature of gardening, the head of the University’s Biology Department has warned.

But we do not need to wait until the next century to see the impact of climate change on the local landscape.

Even before its effects started to kick in, “the Maltese had already done a very good job of rehearsing them” by reducing the amount of water available in the countryside, Sandro Lanfranco pointed out.

Lanfranco, who has been working on using plants as indicators for the changing climate, said: “While it is being assumed that further desertification of the Maltese islands will be a consequence of the predicted warming and drying trend in the central Mediterranean, the actual broad aspect will probably not change much 100 years from now as we are already undergoing this process.”

Most of the valleys are already dry and the trend for shorter rainy seasons has already started. But no permanent freshwater pools are in the pipeline too, he warned.

Malta is already semi-arid today, with rapid population growth during the past 120 years increasing the pressure on its water resources to the point that a significant proportion is now derived from desalination plants, Lanfranco explained.

“We should keep in mind that this artificial production in response to lower rainfall is unsustainable as the process has a high-energy demand,” he said.

“And a loss in capacity of producing water from desalination would, in the long term, lead to the possible depopulation of the Maltese islands.

The interruptions in domestic water supply experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s are a good example of just how much our life and standard of living would change with a reduction in water availability.”

The over-extraction of groundwater has already led to the drying out of many freshwater springs that would have released water into valley beds, Lanfranco continued.

Many freshwater habitats have vanished over the past 100 years and the picture of the countryside today is already bleak.

Lanfranco was asked to react to the “code red” sounded by the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published recently.

It alerted the world to the fact that the 1.5˚C temperature increase limit of the Paris Agreement would likely be breached around 2030, a decade earlier than it had projected just three years ago. 

As a worst-case scenario, it could be around 3.3˚C hotter than now by the end of the century, the report showed.

Already dominated by plants that are tolerant to drought and by animals which can cope with these conditions, “further desertification of Malta would lead to greater coverage of habitats comprising these hardy plants”, Lanfranco anticipated.

Specific predicted effects may include even less water retention in valleys and for shorter periods, which would lead to many turning into dryland habitats, almost indistinguishable from their surroundings.

Growing seasons of plants would be shorter than they are now, increasing the rate of soil erosion – an irreversible process – which would exacerbate the process of desertification, he said about the future of the Maltese countryside.

All permanent freshwater bodies would either disappear or become temporary in nature, Lanfranco said, adding that this would lead to loss of wildlife as plants and animals living in permanent water will become scarcer or disappear altogether.

These areas will favour the growth of amphibious plants until they too would be outcompeted and replaced by dryland plants while trees that require abundant water will eventually die off to be replaced by more drought-tolerant ones.

Looking ahead, Lanfranco cautioned that agriculture may continue to lose its attractiveness as only rain-fed crops would remain viable, “seriously compromising” grape vines.

Closer to home, the lack of water would also restrict gardening and constrain gardeners to use drought-tolerant plants.

“Our present profligacy in the use of water is encouraged by its artificially low cost,” Lanfranco said.

“But the actual economic and environmental price is far higher than the amount paid by consumers.”




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