An EU-funded research-capacity building project in Malta is optimising the use of water for agriculture. Experts from across Europe are sharing innovative approaches to water management with scientists and farmers to help conserve this scarce resource.
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A major challenge to agriculture in Malta is the availability of water for irrigation. Malta has a semi-arid climate, low and decreasing annual rainfall and no significant rivers or lakes. To obtain water individual farmers sink their own boreholes and over-extraction has led to saline sea water entering the underground reservoirs, rendering them unusable.
Part of the problem farmers have faced is the lack of technical advice on how to farm and irrigate in a manner that sustains water resources. As part of its Smart Specialisation Strategy for research and innovation, Malta identified that it suffers an ‘expertise gap’ in sustainable water management, from policymaking through to farmyard practices.
The goal of the EU-funded twinning project FOWARIM is to close this gap by reinforcing the scientific and technical capacity of agricultural experts and researchers in Malta. Led by the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST), the project ‘twins’ Maltese agricultural players with partners from across Europe.
These EU partners include universities, research institutes and consultants with advanced expertise in all aspects of water governance and management.
“With our partners help, we are building a critical mass of expertise that can sustainably manage water resources and help farmers in Malta,” says project coordinator Malcolm Borg of MCAST. “We are focusing on four areas of concern: reducing the demand for water; using alternative sources of water; desalinisation and the use of saline water; and dealing with nutrient-rich groundwater resulting from fertilisers. These are all hot issues for Maltese farmers.”
Cultivating knowledge and skills
Officials from the Directorate for Agriculture (DOA), researchers and students from the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology and the agricultural business community are the main target group for FOWARIM activities.
“It is not only farmers who need knowledge and support,” says Borg. “Policymakers need scientific, evidence-based advice to deliver a framework for water management which is coherent, sustainable and benefits farmers,” he says. “Our range of activities reflect this broad approach.”
Five training courses for researchers and agricultural officials are underway, covering detailed topics such as nutrient and waste handling, salt-water farming and integrated water management. These are led by experts from Italy, Spain and the UK, and held in Malta and abroad.
Likewise, week-long thematic summer schools allow younger research to network with EU experts and stimulate future cooperative activities. E-training modules target a wide range of stakeholders and cover aspects such as technical advances, research results and policy developments within the EU.
Participation in MSc and PhD training modules are also open to young researchers and officials from Malta at university partners in Spain and the UK covering skills such as climate smart irrigation practices, nutrients and contamination control, and laboratory analytical methods, among others.
More crop per drop
Malta’s farmers are also participants in FOWARIM through on-farm demonstration days, the first was held in June 2017. These ‘research into practice’ events focus on innovative management of crops, soil, irrigation and water resources.
“We set up four stations around a farm, each demonstrating a different technology presented by professors from partner universities.” says Borg. “They showed local farmers how cutting-edge equipment can help them balance nutrient content, understand evapotranspiration to better schedule irrigation needs, and to manage soils to improve yields.”
Malta offers farmers treated effluent for irrigation, but the farmers have no information on how to use it and whether it is worth using. FOWARIM is filling the ‘knowledge gap’ to give farmers the clear advice they need on how to use this greener resource for irrigation.
“Our farmers are faced with saline water and nitrate levels in groundwater that far exceed EU norms,” says Borg. “Project participants from Malta have, until now, only been able to tell farmers what not to do. FOWARIM is giving them the tools to change this. In the near future they can also tell farmers what they can do to improve the situation.”