Upmanu Lall | Solving the Global Water Crisis

Upmanu Lall
Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
                                    Photo by Eileen Barroso

The Journal of International Affairs might seem like an odd place for an engineer to publish, as Upmanu Lall recently did, but this engineering professor is used to addressing big questions with broad reach. Foremost in his mind these days: Will we run out of fresh water in the 21st century?

Since the 1980s, Lall has been focused on how society and water intersect. His interest began when he moved to Texas from his native India in order to study systems analysis and very quickly got involved in one of the most complex systems in the American West: water use. As part of his doctoral thesis, Lall examined the state’s future energy and water demands, treating both as parts of one vast, interconnected system with often conflicting parts.

Today, Lall sees a looming global water crisis. In fact, the water crisis, as he sees it, is actually three separate crises—one of access, one of pollution, and one of scarcity— that do not lend themselves to simple solutions. Moreover, each is inexorably linked to the others and to additionally intractable problems like climate change and population growth.

Lall helped found the Columbia Water Center in order to address climate risk management across a range of temporal and spatial scales.

“The possibility that North India may run out of groundwater in a decade leading to a collapse of agriculture in India is not viewed as a global problem,” Lall and his co-authors wrote in the Journal of International Affairs.

“In essence, the global crisis is viewed as a collection of local crises— whether they are related to access, pollution, or scarcity—for which there is a global policy imperative. We rarely address the global elements of these individual problems.”

A key player in the looming water crisis is agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of global water use on average and more than 90 percent in arid regions. Lall thinks that it should be possible to dramatically reduce regional water use while maintaining food security by improving irrigation systems, irrigation scheduling, and when and where different crops are grown. He also sees room for improving water use by improving food processing, storage, and delivery.

With one-third of the developing world expected to confront severe water shortages in this century, Lall sees a problem that is particularly suited to an engineer’s mindset.

“The goal of engineering to develop solutions to societal problems,” said Lall, “fits into the domain of engineering better than anything else.”

B.Tech., Indian Institute of Technology (Kampur), 1976; M.S., University of Texas, 1980; Ph.D., University of Texas, 1981

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