Analyzing how the global trade of food makes societies less reliant on locally available water resources

Paolo D’Odorico investigated global patterns of water scarcity for societies living in water-limited environments. In particular, he analyzed how the global trade of massive amounts of food makes societies less reliant on locally available water resources, thereby allowing some populations to exceed the limits posed by their local water budget. 

The international trade of food commodities implies a virtual transfer of water resources from areas of food production to importing regions. In the short term, the establishment of a global network of virtual water transfer may prevent malnourishment and conflicts, but its long-term effects on the coupled human-natural system remain poorly investigated.

Therefore, using global commodity trade data, D’Odorico reconstructed the network of virtual water trade and studied the long-term effects of the globalization of water resources, including impacts on equity, societal resilience and ecosystem stewardship.

His research focuses on the role of hydrological processes in the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. Starting from analyses of mechanisms underlying the coupling between hydrological processes and the biota, this research has contributed to the emergence of the relatively new field of ecohydrology. 

D’Odorico’s work has provided a framework to investigate the role of soil moisture dynamics in biogeochemical cycles, vegetation water stress, ecosystem productivity, land-atmosphere interactions and soil susceptibility to wind erosion. 

Through field observations and modeling studies, he investigated “new” mechanisms of desertification, which involve positive feedbacks between vegetation dynamics and resource availability or disturbance regimes. His work has shown how environmental variability may increase the complexity of ecosystem dynamics by inducing new bifurcations, enhancing biodiversity, stabilizing vegetation dynamics or inducing vegetation patterns.