Drought, desertification and management of water resources

Permanent monitoring of drought in agriculture and highlighting of the desertification processes in the south of Italy

Antonio Brunetti
Central Office of Crop Ecology (UCEA)

The research sets out to study drought in relation to the evolution of new climatic scenarios, evaluating the effects of a persistent lack of water in agricultural production activities. The issues to confront are therefore the evaluation of how capacity of adaptation in the agricultural system in respect of verifying the drought phenomena comes to be modified, presumably in the negative, due to the occurring climatic evolution. The aspects to consider in such a context are linked to the vulnerability and sensitivity of the system.

As far as vulnerability of the land area is concerned, drought assumes a very relevant role in the context of factors that determine its degradation, for example, in the phenomena of desertification. Its influence in these processes is linked strongly to climatic conditions in the area under examination. The same consideration holds for the sensitivity of the agricultural system in respect to the persistence of water stress that damages production activity: the response of the soil-crop system to such a lack and the economic damage derived from it have a strict bearing on the average system in which these activities develop.

The preparatory phase of the research sets out to supply an exhaustive framework of the techniques and necessary conditions of calculating drought and its representation at a scale determined by the Agricultural Unit of ISTAT (National Institute of Statistics). The character of the anomaly regarding the average conditions and the fact that the phenomenon derives from a persistence of such deviations are the common base for many analytical and calculation instruments developed in scientific literature. In this complex of possibilities, we intend to identify a limited number of drought indicators that, when taken together, allow for the satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon and its multivarious aspects.

As a result, we will then carry out an appropriate calibration for a correct description of the reality in Italy, compensating for the possible lack described through the introduction of new drought indicators (new indices or modifications to existing ones). The local scale on which drought will be monitored, and the need to refer the analysis to objective features in the area to consider, justify this phase of research. Such results will allow for the development of a quantitative monitoring instrument on drought at the national level, and the creation of an archive-data bank on drought in Italy. This latter will follow a historical series available in the national agrometeorological data bank and of a series of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) images available through the ITA Consortium.

Concurrently, the complex of improved indicators will allow developing the study of the impact of a mutable climatic scenario on the adaptive capacity in respect of the drought events in the Italian agricultural system. The priority in applying these results will be to construct a support system to decisions regarding water resource management, agricultural practice, and environmental planning.

The research will be developed in two foreseen alternatives: applying the calculation and estimation methods already present in the scientific publications to the historical series of agrometeorological data (in some cases, a century-old), and verifying drought events of notable intensity through the use of satellite images, with particular reference to the two-year period from 1988-1989, which is historically significant.

From the comparative analysis of results obtained, we will then develop appropriate modelling of the calculation of drought indicators, carrying out both calibration and modification of existing indicators, as well as introducing new calculation instruments. The fact remains clear that the phenomena under study are of an underlying complexity and cannot be limited to the analysis to a single indicator. We will identify a certain number of indices that together may offer a description that is sufficiently complete in terms of variability and variety. The consequent choice of the appropriate indicators will provide for an evaluation of drought as a response to particular scenarios evolving in the climate.

Particular attention will be devoted to defining the scale characteristic of drought events, in order to have objective elements for developing the instruments of monitoring and analysis. Once this system is perfected, we will proceed to creating archives with all drought phenomena of the last decades and the implementation of information produced in the Geographic Information System (GIS) that would have the best possible management, and supply analytical instruments.

At the same time, we will proceed to an in-depth definition of the state of vulnerability and sensitivity of the agricultural system regarding drought. It will be aimed at determining appropriate criteria that may describe the degradation in agricultural land and the damage to productive activity caused from drought occurrence. The application of such criteria to possible future climatic scenarios will allow for pursuing the final objective of research, that is, the study of the response to the evolving process occurring in the atmosphere, from the capacity of the agricultural system to sustain the drought events. Further, the research will describe the terms of land degradation and instability of the crop yields following periods of prolonged lack of water.


  • Completion of the series of NDVI images
  • The study, analysis and identification of appropriate methodologies to estimate drought in agriculture (indicators);
  • The study of the criteria of vulnerability and sensitivity of the land;
  • Acquisition of a Geographic Information System (GIS) to manage the functioning of the system.

  • Setting up an operative system for evaluating and systematic monitoring of the drought phenomena through the use of agrometeorological data and satellite data (NDVI);
  • Defining a model for estimating the vulnerability and sensitivity of the agricultural system in regards to drought and initiating a study on the impact of climatic changes;
  • Developing the design of the planned system, the tests and validation.

  • Concluding the study regarding the impact of new climatic scenarios on the response of the land to drought;
  • Creating a data base on drought;
  • Producing of a specific GIS for the management of information produced from the implemented system.

The first innovative aspect of the research will be defining an essential group of indicators adapted to the description of drought in Italian territory. This phase aims at a first evaluation of the group of indices existing in publications, studying their adaptation to the Italian situation and, finally, researching a group of indicators that are capable of describing this situation.

The creation of a data base on drought using GIS will be a further innovative aspect because this has never been developed before. Further, it could, rather, constitute a useful instrument for calibrating models and representing a term of comparing for the analysis of future drought events.

With the development of GIS, it is also desirable to provide an optimal instrument for using resources and the results obtained from research, creating a system that allows for the management of geo-referenced information and that may at the same time possess accurate instruments of analysis of this same data.

Another innovative aspect in the framework of CLIMAGRI will be the particular relevance that its scope assumes in the study of the impact that new climatic scenarios produce on the agricultural system relative to drought events. The study of how the agricultural system adapts itself to climatic changes and consequently, how its response changes to the drought event will be of great important in planning projects and managing water resources, in the prevention of risks and the evaluation of damages.

There are numerous technico-scientific, socio-economical effects. First, the creation of an accurate instrument for monitoring drought formed by an archive-data bank and an instrument of analysis and data management will be the Geographic Information System (GIS); it will be essential to plan the targeted interventions to reduce the impact on agriculture due to a drought event. Knowing the real response of agricultural land to a drought event, it will be possible to optimize and support water resource management, to assess the extent of damage and of future crop yields, and to ultimately have a support system to the decisions in matters of environmental planning for the sustainable use of resources in agriculture.

  • Bilello, A., Brunetti, A. & Giovacchini A. 1992. Remote sensing and agriculture: The Ministry of Agriculture activity. Convention on Agrometeorology and remote sensing. Palermo, Italy.
  • Brunetti A. & Dal Monte, G. 1993. La Banca Dati Agrometeorologica Nazionale. Atti del convegno “Studio degli ambienti”. Asti 13.4.1993.
  • Brunetti A., Dal Monte, G. & Perini, L. 1993. Indici Agroclimatici: Probabilità di gelate.
  • Dal Monte, G., Perini L. & Brunetti L. 1995. Indici Agroclimicatici. Quantità attese di precipitazione ed evapotraspirazione potenziale.

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