Studying the climate and its impacts to manage water resources better in farming

Studying the climate and its impacts to manage water resources better in farming

March 22, 2021

Studying the climate and its impacts to manage water resources better in farming

Interview with Monia Santini, director of the Impacts on Agriculture, Forests and Ecosystem Services (IAFES) Division of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) and the research team coordinator in Viterbo. 

The Research Division I coordinate deals with the interactions between climate and terrestrial ecosystems (forests, agriculture, soil), in which water plays a central role” explains the researcher, stressing the importance of taking a multidisciplinary approach to the problem rather than a strictly “meteorological” one. 

This is what is happening at the CMCC Foundation, initially set up as a consortium between Italian universities and research centers dedicated to climate sciences, which not only studies the climate as a set of atmospheric phenomena, but also looks at all the changes that these same phenomena can have on ecosystems and human activities across different time scales, ultimately making an assessment that quantifies the physical, economic and social impacts. 


At the Center, each member of the team has a different expertise and we work in two directions: we study the impact of climate change on nature, ecosystems, society and the economy, but also the effect that agricultural practices, energy use or political choices can have on the climate,” he says. “And we don't stop at the theory, we carry out research and then go on to provide evaluation and decision-making tools. There is a lot of applied research” concludes the researcher, who has been working with the Barilla Foundation for several years on the subject of food sustainability.


How much of the available water is used in agriculture?

Globally, about 60-70% of water is used in agriculture for both food crops and those used to generate “bioenergy”, the latter growing precisely as a result of investments made to mitigate climate change. This triggers a kind of initial competition, because the same crops used to produce biofuels (for example cereals and soybeans) are also important to guarantee the global availability of healthy and sufficient food (food security). It is important to remember that water is not only used in agriculture but also for hydroelectric, industrial and domestic purposes (including drinking water), and - no less importantly - that a minimum of water must be left for ecosystems to function, which is known as the 'ecological' use of water.


What is the current water situation in Italy?

As a country in the Mediterranean basin, Italy is in an area that is already historically affected by a climate that features hot and dry summers. Having dry summers is not unusual for the country, but it is strange to see rain beginning to fail in seasons when it is normally a feature of the weather, such as in autumn. This is why drought (together with its “opposite” phenomenon: heavy rain) is one of the most important climatic extremes for Italians, who already inhabit a particularly vulnerable region from this point of view. 

When the droughts we are accustomed to start becoming more frequent and last longer or occur at different times of the year, an imbalance is also created in terms of water use, because the water has to be drawn from another source, either superficial or underground, depending on the region. Whatever the source may be, it is still going to have an effect on a system that was fulfilling other fundamental purposes, e.g. supplying homes.

What is meant by drought?

In the collective imagination, drought corresponds to a lack of rain, but this definition is incomplete. There are several components to drought: there is meteorological drought (which is indeed a lack of rain), which then turns into a hydrological drought (lack of water in surface and underground water bodies), and there is agricultural drought (the soil is dry, i.e. there is a lack of water in the soil). A socio-economic drought has also been identified (because all the previous aspects trigger a series of impacts in terms of water availability and use). 

Drought also has different attributes: it is not enough to say “it isn’t raining”, you have to work out when it isn't raining, for how long it isn’t raining, how often these rainless periods occur, and much more. 

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It is important to define these climatic and other phenomena in detail in order to understand what the impacts may be on sectors that use water resources. In the agricultural sector, one might think of offsetting any lack of rain with irrigation, but the water bodies from which you draw the water to irrigate the fields are replenished by the same rain, so a vicious circle begins. 


What is happening today and what can we expect for the future?

Many research projects and observations point to an increase in aridity and temperature levels in the Mediterranean area, which is identified as a hot spot of climate change for these two parameters, particularly in reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Taking projections from different models, in order to allow for the inevitable uncertainty about the future, we can say that the trend is moving towards a worsening of the situation especially in the Mediterranean region and particularly in Italy. Estimates show that it will rain less and less in some areas, especially in the central southern regions, while there could be an increase in winter rains along the Alpine chain, with potential hot spots of heavier precipitation that will be detrimental to agriculture, causing damage to crops and loss of land due to hydrogeological instability, from surface erosion to landslides. 

The trend for our region is indeed worrying for several reasons: the climate is increasingly arid and consequently the availability of water is gradually decreasing, with a population which, due to demographic shifts, is tending to concentrate in some areas, which as a result are becoming more vulnerable to a lack of resources. This is leading to an increase in domestic and civil consumption as well as in the demand from agriculture to satisfy the greater demand for agricultural products under the pressure of global population growth. If we then consider the typical summer flow of tourists drawn to the country's many coastal, natural and cultural attractions, we can see the risk of water scarcity becoming critical in the driest seasons, making the replenishment of the sources of supply increasingly difficult.

In the Mediterranean area, all these trends are particularly worrying because they affect a region that in itself is already suffering from a high scarcity of water


How much of a factor are leaks and mismanagement?

Some water distribution systems in Italy suffer from leaks of 50% or more. The importance of proper management is therefore clear and can be ensured by quick, targeted interventions. Without a doubt, humans and the choices they make play a very important role. Beyond our individual efforts to save water, we need to rethink and renew the distribution systems, eliminate or reduce these unacceptable leaks, particularly by making use of the technological innovation achieved through the success in research.

Can precision agriculture help reduce the problems associated with water shortages? 

This new form of farming, particularly what is known as “climate smart agriculture”, i.e. agriculture that takes the climate into account, can undoubtedly be very helpful. The use of drones, sensors and other cutting-edge technologies identifies the best times to irrigate or “fertirrigate” (fertilization and irrigation combined) and the amounts of water required. Observation is combined with forecasting models to support the decisions of local administrators or decision-makers and understand which type of crop is best suited to that particular context that is evolving. There is no doubt that this type of agriculture requires a significant technological, cultural and economic investment, which is why it is more easily assimilated by large companies first, and only later adopted by small producers. 

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How are the results communicated to end users (farmers, companies, policy makers)?

It very much depends on the type of project in which the results were developed. What we can say is that in recent years science has undoubtedly come very close to the end user, moving towards a form of “science for society” also based on international requirements and indications. For example, the reports and results that we produced in the past (large amounts of data, perhaps sometimes difficult to interpret, etc.) are now also accompanied by much more “user friendly” tools. 

In particular, we co-produce and co-evaluate the product with the end user: for example, questionnaires and workshops are used in which we try to determine whether the product is really interesting and useful for the end user and we try to produce results that can actually support practical decisions. A major part of the process is completed together with the end user, to determine what is really useful for them, which is also a way to reach different kinds of stakeholders, from political decision-makers to local planners, from multinational companies to small local farmers. 


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