Addressing the Global Water Crisis Requires Radical New Thinking

We need to raise our expectations of what water services should be in the 21st century, says leading expert Upmanu Lall.

Sep 08 2023 | By Holly Evarts

Rethinking Water 2023

"Solutions Now for America's Water Infrastructure"

September 19, 2023

The Forum (605 W. 125th Street, New York, NY)

Climate Week NYC 2023 at Columbia Engineering

Columbia Engineering and Columbia Climate School join others in hosting a variety of climate-centered lectures, symposia, and receptions.

Upmanu Lall

Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center and Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering, is spearheading the Sept. 19 "Rethinking Water" conference. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schifman

When it comes to the ongoing water crisis, the thirst for new ideas is crucial.

On Sept. 19, the Columbia Water Center and Sciens Water are hosting Rethinking Water 2023:  Solutions Now for America's Water Infrastructure, where more than 500 participants from finance, academia, government, and industry are expected to meet in person and virtually to find solutions to the water crisis in the United States. The conference, now in its 15th year and held in conjunction with Climate Week NYC, will be led by Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center and Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia Engineering. We sat down with Lall, a preeminent researcher in water resource management and climate risk analysis, to find out how he’s rethinking all these issues. 

The theme of Climate Week NYC 2023 is “We can. We will.” How does that statement resonate with you as an expert in this field for more than 25 years?

It is a great affirmative statement. I would add–we are doing it. The rate of carbon emissions has not come down significantly, but the rate of deployment of renewable energy is well ahead of projections with declining costs, so, at a very basic level, it is possible to be pessimistic and optimistic about the future of climate change.

However, the area being missed is that most climate impacts on society and ecology come through water, and with growing global populations and materials use, we need to do a lot better to understand and act on the water side of climate fluctuations--floods and droughts impact all supply chains, including food, minerals, and energy, while pollution induced by the failure to manage floods leads to chronic health and livelihood problems.

What can be done to solve these water challenges?

In my view, we need radically new thinking on the design of water systems, on agriculture, and on climate engineering.

Water-smart crop (the right crop in the right place) selection and efficient irrigation systems are critical to reducing the stress on local water systems, given that more than 70% of all water used is for agriculture. 

In urban areas, we face growing costs with moving water through pipes and pumps and increasingly find we need better treatments to remove new chemicals. Given the cost structure and the technologies available today, I can visualize centrally managed but hyper-local water treatment--including wastewater treatment, and local capture, reuse, and storage of water--emerging as the new direction to assure affordable high-quality water and sanitation. These would rely heavily on sensors, remote monitoring, and management.

Given the environmental and social impacts of dams and levees, together with their high cost, it is likely that interest in building or replacing them will be low. The question then is how to protect people from floods and droughts. My personal thinking is that we have no choice but to start thinking about how we can use novel engineering methods to steer storms to places we want them to go to or to defuse them so that the impact of catastrophic floods can be dramatically reduced. Similarly, could we divert storms to places that are in drought? How to do this is a grand challenge.

What have been some of the big wins in the last decade? Have you seen progress?

The Biden-Harris Infrastructure Act has been perhaps the biggest infusion of capital and recognition of the need for addressing the problems that we have seen in the last two decades. While most people in the field will say that it is too little relative to the scale of the problem, it is certainly a start to get people focused on what needs to be done.

What do you hope people will take away from this year’s event?

We are focusing on the immediate goals of how the urban infrastructure needs to change and also how it can be paid for and managed with appropriate contributions from public, private, and philanthropic sources. So this is a very pragmatic look at how to move forward from a situation where examples like the water system failures in Flint, Mich., Jackson, Miss., and Alabama, to name a few, keep cropping up and seem to become perpetual. We hope that managers, operators, and investors in both the public and private sectors will see how the confluence of thinking on the technology, finance, and management side can bring us back to the best water in the world, water management that serves our entire population, especially the disadvantaged groups in poorer communities.

What can we do as individuals to contribute to “Rethinking Water”? 

We need to raise our expectations of what water services should be in the 21st century and communicate them. There is a natural expectation that the water we drink at home or in the office is going to be available, and does not have any chemicals or pathogens that could make us sick. However, we have no testing of water at the point of use and hence we do not know that there is a problem until it is too late. This has been the issue in Flint, Mich., and in Jackson, Miss., for example.

Similarly, we have a natural expectation that we will not be exposed to flooding, and yet eight people died just over a year ago due to basement flooding in New York City from rain-induced street flooding that was due in part to sewer blockage, a very unexpected event, compared to major floods in Florida, the Carolinas, or on the Mississippi. 

It is critical that individuals lobby and make clear that such situations are unacceptable for all, that they are not just an environmental justice issue or an issue for minority or disadvantaged communities. The so-called human right to water needs to be defined in terms of specific expectations that the public and private sectors need to meet, and mechanisms for supporting the technology development and deployment with appropriate financing need to be put in place. 

I think this kind of advocacy is more important than the typical examples of taking shorter showers and conserving water. Those are also important personal actions, but addressing the common water security locally and globally would be the higher goal. 

Upmanu Lall: Innovative new approaches are needed for ensuring drinking water standards are met.

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