Global Water Expert Visits Chile

January 24, 2019

Columbia University’s Upmanu Lall, visited Chile in January in the context of the Congreso Futuro conference. Among many activities and meetings, he delivered a lecture at the Columbia Global Centers | Santiago, where he presented a detailed analysis of water supply and distribution issues around the world, drawing from his experience as head of the Columbia Water Center, and as a researcher and consultant to governments like India.

Lall is the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering and the Chair of the Department of Earth & Environmental Engineering at Columbia. His current research covers three major initiatives that are developed through the Columbia Water Center: The Global Water Sustainability Initiative, which addresses global water scarcity and risk; The Global Flood Initiative which seeks to predict, mitigate and manage floods at a global scale recognizing their climate drivers and economic impacts, and; America's Water seeks to develop sustainable water management and infrastructure design paradigms in the United States recognizing the linkages between urban areas, food, water, energy and climate.

When thinking about water, and the global response to scarcity, it is important to maintain a critical perspective to understand if a problem is one of climate change or management, Lall argued during his lecture. He highlighted several widely-reported stories. In 2017, the "Day Zero" water scarcity scenario loomed over Cape Town, South Africa, population four million. Local factories and global multinationals were shuttered as water supply was squeezed to a bare minimum. Widely reported as caused by climate change, according to Lall's analysis the shortage was instead the direct result of a government policy years earlier designed to increase supply to agricultural lands. "They changed their demand (for water) and no one wants to admit it. This is a governance problem that resulted from basically someone not thinking...and doing a favor for a particular interest", he explained.

In California, a $250,000 structural repair on the state's tallest dam was put off for years, until the cost of the repair ballooned to $1.2 billion and potential failure threatened thousands of people downstream. This was an infrastructure story, not a climate change story, as it had been presented, Lall said.

In an historically dry province in northern India, government policies to increase irrigation led to significant growth in agricultural productivity, but also triggered overconsumption.

"Is it climate, or is it governance"? he asked.

A trend of blaming all water scarcity or supply issues on climate change leads to inaction by governments, as they are presented as problems to be resolved by the developed world, or the collective whole, he said. "We should go after the developed world (for climate change), but not for these reasons”, Lall declared.

If issues like "Day Zero" or overwhelmed infrastructure are seen as governance issues, having to do with poor public management of water supply, or a lack of infrastructure investment, then they are potentially solvable with proper planning, he said. The same goes for preparations for radical climate events, like floods or droughts. "There is no shortage of solutions, but it is the implementation is where we are stuck, across the board", Lall stated. "We need to find a way by which things from the bottom-up can start getting solved".

Lall's conference was sponsored by the Columbia Global Centers | Santiago, the Center for Climate and Resilience Research, Congreso Futuro and  the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD). It was chaired by Alex Godoy, the Director of the Centro de Investigación en Sustentabilidad (CISGER) at UDD.

During his trip to Chile, Lall spoke at the Congreso Futuro conference on a panel entitled "Empowering the Planet" with Mónica Araya and Yin Li.

He also held meetings with local authorities in charge of water management, mining companies and engineering specialists working on sewage systems.

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