This was our last talk of the semester. Dr. Upmanu Lall is the Director for the Columbia University Water Center, and is also the Alan & Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering in the Columbia Department of Earth & Environmental Engineering. His talk was quite lively and well received. He talked about issues related to Water availability, for consumption and crop irrigation, with particular reference to the developing world. Although Dr. Lall has projects spread across the globe, this talk focused on his work in India.
An especially eye opening aspect of his talk is that, for all our concern on people running out of drinking water, and the attending deaths that would come from that, there has been little focus on the real sources of water loss. In a story he related to us, most Development agencies want to do things like install hand pumps in rural villages, or even have PeaceCorps-like programs, where western College students get to travel to exotic locals to do maintenance on pumps. Clearly an ineffective way to perform maintenance, and surely the people of the developing world are competent enough to perform maintenance. Rather, Dr. Lall’s research is suggesting that there is massive inefficiencies in agricultural water use in the developing world, partly a result of technology and political corruption. This has lead to strange situations where native crops have been displaced for newer ones that don’t grow as well in a region. For example wheat has been grown in Gujarat for millenia, but the government developed a scheme whereby rice would be grown there. Rice intensively uses water resources. So some regions where wheat was grown were compelled to switch to rice, and the historic rice growing regions were compelled to switch to wheat. The result has been mass wastage of water. Infact, Dr. Lall’s research seems to show that the amount of water generally needed to keep up with human consumption is dwarfed by the amount lost through poor agricultural practice.
Dr. Lall didn’t just point fingers, his group has developed extremely cheap and highly effective devices to indicate water moisture, worked with the government to begin metering of water usage for research purposes, and worked out more reasonable distributions of farm use throughout the country.
An exciting talk that generated a bit of controversy and discussion. It was a great capstone to our Spring Semester of talks, and has really motivated us in our preparations for the Fall 2012 GEOS sessions (planning for which is already underway).