The Maltese Experiment

Around 475,000 people live on the 316 square kilometres that comprise Malta, an island nation smack in the middle of the Mediterranean. They are now embarking on an experiment in sustainable living that could provide guidance to people around the world. John Dyer reports.

Eighty per cent of Maltese citizens are in favour of plans to boost the island’s natural resources and promote sustainability. (Image credit: Ferenc Horvath via Unsplash)

Inhabited for more than 7,000 years, one third of the island is developed and half is agricultural, leaving only around 20 per cent of the rocky island wild. Rising tourism, immigration and urbanization are now threatening to gobble that up, too.

Green and blue infrastructure

In a bid to boost nature and increase sustainability, the European Union’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 research programme is funding a range of studies with the aim of promoting green and blue infrastructure like green roofs and walls, rain gardens, sustainable urban drainage systems, natural water retention, hedgerows, salt marshes and dunes, floodplains and parks.

Bringing together researchers from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, the University of Trento in Italy, University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom and Pensoft Publishers in Bulgaria, the ReNature programme hopes to create a common platform for business, politicians and others to figure out solutions to climate change challenges and quality of life on the island nation.

“There is a strong need for land use planning to promote the use of nature-based solutions to develop the green infrastructure network in urban areas and, by doing so, to significantly contribute to supporting biodiversity and ecosystem services flows leading to benefits to society,” said Mario Balzan, an agro-environmental scientist at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, in a press release.

Maltese citizens overwhelming support re-greening measures

Polls indicate that Maltese citizens are especially open to the idea, with more than 80 per cent supporting “re-greening” measures.

“This ambitious project aims to make Malta a strong research and innovation player in the emerging field of nature-based solutions, thereby providing an opportunity to develop and test new technical and policy solutions in an urbanized island environment,” said Balzan.

Members of the team are already working on plans to make Ghar Dalam – a cave where prehistoric dwarf elephant, hippopotami, deer and bear bones have been found, illustrating the formerly teeming nature of the island – into Malta’s first national park.

“Lots of work ahead to address cultural issues like hunting,” tweeted Trinity College Ecologist Marcus Collier, alluding to efforts to curb unsustainable hunting and trapping that is a part of Maltese identity.

The researchers pointed to studies showing that farming, beekeeping, herding and other rural practices could coexist with sustainable green re-naturing on Malta and provide air quality regulation and aesthetic benefits, or how recreation could benefit from more green space.

Bellwether for regional challenges ahead

Malta could be a bellwether for the challenges that a new study described as facing in the region

Synthesizing other scholarship in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists recently found that Southern Europe and North Africa face climate changes that are worse than previously thought.

“The rates of climate change observed in the Mediterranean Basin exceed the global trends for most variables,” the researchers wrote in a press release. “The impact has further exacerbated the existing environmental problems caused by land use changes such as urbanization and agricultural intensification, increasing pollution and declining biodiversity.”

Average temperatures in the region have already increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius, or more 0.4 degrees Celsius since humankind started dumping significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the study found. Summer rainfall is already slated to fall by as much as 30 perc ent in some regions in southern Europe. That and population growth could mean that water supplies need to be increased by as much as 74 per cent in some countries as sources dwindle.

Public health and public security are also at risk as air pollution could cause more cardiovascular or respiratory diseases and diseases like the West Nile virus, Dengue, Chikungunya might become more prevalent. Coastal erosion and rising sea levels are also likely to cause crises in tiny nations like Malta, the study found.

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