Consumption Equity: Will the Next War Be Fought Over Water?

Dr. Upmanu Lall is the Director of the Columbia Water Center, and a leading expert on hydroclimatology, climate change adaptation, risk analysis and mitigation. His research has emphasized hydrology, water resource systems analysis, operations research and stochastic processes with applications to flood/drought risk and uncertainty assessment and the design and operation of water systems. He has pioneered the application of techniques from (a) nonlinear dynamical systems,  (b) nonparametric methods of function estimation and their application to spatio-temporal dynamical systems, and (c) the study of multi-scale  climate variability and change as an integral component of hydrologic systems. As new knowledge was created in these areas, he has focused on its application to water resources management through innovation in adaptive or dynamic risk management methods that can use information on the structure of climate for simulation or forecasting. Recently, he has become concerned with the issue of global and regional water sustainability, and the more general issue of modeling and managing planetary change due to coupled human and natural dynamics. He is developing technical and policy tools for the projection and management of environmental change as part of a quantitative approach to sustainability of earth systems.


  • Transcript


Upmanu Lall: As is often brought up, the people in the more affluent countries, or the rich, have a much higher per capita consumption of water as well as other resources.  So, do I have an external impact by doing that kind of consumption on others?  Of course you do.  It's the haves-and-the-have-not story in its most magnificent structure.  If you decide that you have a responsibility to take care of others who are less fortunate than you, at least in terms of their basic needs, and you’re providing the resources to do that, I think that is one way to buy happiness out of your own consumption story. 

That, I think, has worked as a mantra for us for much of the 20th century.  The question is that when you start looking at levels of population that push the sustainability limits of the planet, can you still continue to do so?  And I think the answer is obviously not, and everybody will have to scale back.  And the debate that comes with that is that, well, okay, so I am in an affluent country and I'm consuming more per capita, but I only have one or two children and why is that person in the developing country insisting on having seven or eight children?  They are creating an externality back for me, so if I look at their total consumption at the family unit rather than at the individual, I'm balanced. 

So that adds another wrinkle to that story, and I think this is why it’s important that we start looking at resource issues from a global perspective rather than a country perspective or an individual perspective.  Once we get into that then some of the issues that need to be dealt with at the global scale become clear.  They could be pricing structures.  They could be what needs to be done to actually increase global productivity if we want to survive as a planet.  But that’s where the perspective comes, and I think that really is an opportunity for collaboration amongst nations and not a competitive situation.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd