Earth Institute Profiles

Upmanu Lall

Director, Columbia Water Center

Upmanu Lall

As he explained in a recent issue of Columbia Engineering, for Professor Upmanu Lall, "the goal of engineering is to develop solutions to societal problems." Over three decades a hydrologist, Lall has focused on the societal problems associated with water: from severe water shortages that are expected to occur in one-third of the developing world during this century, to the relationship between global water systems and climate variability and change, to the interlinked risks and opportunities of the water/energy/food nexus.

Lall grew up in India, seeing the impact of droughts first hand. He remembers how even middle class people had to stand in line at government ration shops for days on end because of major famines.

In his study of engineering, he was drawn to areas that employed mathematics and physics, and found that water could bring those two disciplines together in a way that also addresses real-world problems. His intellectual interest in systems analysis, which is where he focused his graduate studies, led him to investigate the complex linkages between climate, natural hazards, agriculture and energy.

As the director of the Columbia Water Center, a unit of the Earth Institute that he helped found in 2008, Lall has pioneered an approach to applied research that emphasizes the importance of viewing water issues through several different traditional academic disciplines in order to understand the global dimension and interconnected nature of water challenges.

"In earlier times," Lall explains, "climatologists studied precipitation and convection, oceanographers studied the action of water oceans, and hydrologists took rainfall as an input that someone provided them, not concerned with where it came from." By contrast, through his leadership at the Water Center, Lall has spearheaded an approach that combines rigorous science and a multi-disciplinary systems methodology to address real-world water challenges at multiple scales.

Water problems, Lall says, are usually seen as "a collection of local crises—whether they are related to access, pollution or scarcity. We rarely address the global elements of these individual problems." There is the need to understand what Lall calls "the collective impact of people doing their thing," how prior human interference with water systems changes present conditions. This can be through irrigation for agriculture, which accounts for 70 to 90 percent of the world's water use; through dams, such as those that were built to make the American West habitable; or through the widespread use of chemicals like phosphorus which can continue to be reintroduced into water today from sediments, long after their use has been abandoned.

An additional challenge is protecting human society from water-related risks. Here the goal is to focus on predicting water and climate issues that could have disastrous effects for human populations. If a massive hurricane can be predicted even a few months in advance, it is possible to prepare by upgrading dykes and putting other engineering solutions into place in time to minimize the degree of damage that occurred during Katrina. As an example, he mentions the 1997 El Niño forecast for California that led the state to dredge rivers in time to avoid catastrophe there.

In 2008, the Columbia Water Center received a three-year, $6 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation to address water scarcity, agriculture and allocation issues in India, Brazil, Mali and China.  Much of this early work was focused on improving efficiency of agricultural water use, especially in the developing world, where water problems are most prevalent. To address this, the Center worked on multiple scales, from piloting plans for municipal water infrastructure, designing water catchment for villages and working with farmers to test low-cost water-monitoring technology, to developing statewide climate forecasting for water allocation in Ceará, Brazil, approaches to reforming water-wasting energy subsidies in Gujarat, and models for national crop-shifting across India.

Recently, Professor Lall has initiated and is leading the "America's Water" initiative. A consortium of academic, industry, think tank and policy experts, America's Water aims to inform water sustainability improvements in the United States through innovative management solutions, new technologies, new infrastructure designs and new policies. The initiative recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to analyze how climate, agricultural practices and energy supply and prices interact to impact water availability and supply risk across the country.

He is also leading another major project funded by the Norges Bank Investment Management on the Financial Risk associated with water in mining. This project will develop a set of tools for quantitatively mapping environmental risk factors to financial impact using copper and gold mining in the United States, Canada, Peru, Chile, S. Africa and Australia as a case study for comprehensive analysis and tool development.

The Global Flood Initiative of the Columbia Water Center is the third major initiative he is currently developing and leading with support from the American Insurance Group, NOAA and others. The initiative focuses on a broad set of attributes of flood risk, including the duration and recurrence of flooding and its connection to global climate. Global supply chain risk as well as property and casualty risk are targets of the applications.

Over his 33 years of experience as a hydrology professor, Lall has developed expertise in statistical and numerical modeling of hydrologic and climatic systems and water resource planning and management. He has pioneered statistical methods and their application to the prediction of hydrologic and climate conditions, and advanced tools for decision analysis and risk management. His research projects have covered water quantity and energy resource management, flood analysis, groundwater modeling and subsurface characterization, climate modeling, and the development of statistical and mathematical modeling methods. He has been involved as a consultant with specialization in groundwater flow and contaminant transport modeling covering mining operations, stream flow modeling and water balance, risk and environmental impact assessment, and site hydrologic evaluation. Lall has also served as a reviewer and expert on a number of other hydrologic problems. He has also taught over 20 distinct university courses.

Upmanu Lall received his B.S. in 1977 from the Indian Institute of Technology and both his M.S. (1980) and Ph.D. (1981) in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas. He is the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering, and he served as Earth and Environmental Engineering Department chair from 2003 to 2006. He received the 2014 Henry Darcy Award from the European Geophysical Union and the 2010 Arid Lands Hydrology Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. He is currently the President of the Natural Hazards Focus Group of the American Geophysical Union.