The central Mediterranean archipelago is predicted to lose 16% of its groundwater through climate change and rising sea levels over the next 80 years.
Malta's drinking water supply is under threat from climate change and human activity is not helping, experts have told Euronews.
Europe’s smallest member state lacks lakes and rivers and instead gets its water from two different sources: groundwater which can be found hundreds of meters underground and reverse osmosis plants along the coast that turn seawater into potable water.
Trouble is, the central Mediterranean archipelago is predicted to lose 16% of its groundwater through climate change and rising sea levels over the next 80 years, according to research published in 2021. Reserve osmosis, meanwhile, carries potential strategic risks.
“Water is a finite source. If we exploit it as if there’s no tomorrow, the [water] reserve we’re sitting on will soon dry up," water treatment engineer and hydrologist Marco Cremona, told Euronews.
Extended periods of droughts
Groundwater is considered the lifeline when it comes to potable water, but it’s drying up fast.
Climate change has pushed the country's average temperature up by 1.5°C since 1952 and rainfall has become inconsistent, Charles Galdies, associate professor at the Institute of Earth Systems at the University of Malta, told Euronews.
Just last month, he said, a storm hit the island dumping 140.40 mm of rain in a single day. Yet these sorts of events usually come between extended periods of drought, he explained, resulting in a leaner volume of groundwater.
“If annual rainwater continues to dwindle, it would lead to less water ending up as groundwater," Galdies said.
Rising sea levels could further confound the problem as saltwater is expected to seep into the water table, according to a World Bank analysis.
But global warming is not the only culprit. Human behaviour also has a lot to account for and isn’t giving enough time for the groundwater to replenish, Cremona said.
'Climate change will speed up things'
Over the years, there has been illegal over-extraction through the drilling of illegal boreholes, to sustain agriculture in particular. Batching plants are another thief in the night, illegally pumping 95 million litres of groundwater, official figures from 2019 showed.
The tourism sector also puts water supplies under strain. Last year, the archipelago of 520,000 inhabitants, welcomed nearly 2.3 million foreign visitors, an increase from the year before but still below pre-pandemic levels.
Scrubland, garigue, as well as agricultural land, have also in recent years been eaten up by the intensive construction of apartments and offices. According to data by Eurostat, Malta has one of the highest proportions of artificial land cover.
"When combining all of these factors, climate change will speed up things," Cremona said.
The reverse osmosis plants, which come at a high financial cost, may give the impression that Malta is buttressed against the impact of climate change, but Cremona is somewhat sceptical.
"We’re putting our eggs in one basket because reverse osmosis [desalinisation] comes with strategic risks,” he said.
One risk could be deliberate sabotage at one of the desalinisation plants, but accidents, like an oil spill close to the island, could also cripple production, Cremona said.
'A huge and expensive logistical effort'
A recent find may offer the country a reprieve.
Scientists from the MARCAN project, from the Department of Geosciences at the University of Malta, revealed earlier this year that there is enough offshore fresh groundwater below the archipelago's seafloor to sustain the islands for 75 years.
But they also said that the water stock, about 3km away from the coast, is under low permeability layers, meaning the extraction could be difficult and expensive.
"In practice this entails a huge and expensive logistical effort given it’s out at sea and further research is needed to assess if the water is of good quality for consumption,” Cremona cautioned.
Additionally, significant improvements have been made to the country's water distribution system over the past three decades, to prevent leaks but progress appears slow with nearly 40% of non-revenue water being lost — nearly double the average rate for the EU and UK, according to the European federation of national associations of water services.
The desalinisation process is, meanwhile, also becoming more energy efficient.
Still, the local authorities are for now betting on people to curb consumption and save water. The Maltese Energy & Water agency is spearheading an educational campaign in a bid to make people aware of the amount of water they use and, at times, misuse.
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