Integrating economic and environmental indicators in the assessment of desertification risk: a case study

Desertification involves many countries featuring different ecological, economic, and social conditions. In Mediterranean Europe, high human pressure, economic development, and climatic changes combine to produce land consumption, soil erosion, salinization, and fire risk, all considered as key factors to start desertification processes. For many years the term desertification has been strictly associated to geo-physical conditions, but in very complex ecosystems the study of the interaction of physical patterns with population and social characteristics is necessary to better delineate areas at risk. The aims of this paper are therefore (i) to review recent findings in term of desertification processes and risk assessment in the Mediterranean basin, (ii) to illustrate a simplified model in which social and economic variables may significantly accelerate land degradation leading to desertification, (iii) to suggest a set of demographic, economic, and institutional indicators suitable to contribute to the assessment of desertification risk in the Mediterranean basin, (iv) to built a synthetic index based on a multivariate approach and, finally, (v) to compare such index with a standard index of desertification risk only referring to geo-physical conditions.