Sustainability and Technology: 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: I think our entire story is about technology.  Can technology now get us out of the sustainability jam?  In the 1960 to 1980 period there was the Club of Rome that kept talking about, what is the population the world can support? And going further back it was, you know, Malthus in the 18th, 19th century time period.  Let’s think about that, okay?  What we saw as estimates of what the world can support itself that were made between 1960 and 1980 ranged from one billion people to one trillion people, so obviously we had no clue.  The fact that we are at seven billion and, in many respects, metrics for human standards of living have improved globally - if you normalize it on the number of people we have, we have surprisingly good standards of living today than what we had before - so if you recognize that, where did that come from?  And it has come simply because we have been able to develop technologies that do two things: one is they allow us to extract much more of the resources that we need out of the planet at a much lower cost.  This is not necessarily good because it points to exhaustion and collapse.  So many people today will argue that this is a temporary blessing.  We are out of shape after some time.  But the second thing technology has allowed us to do is to recycle and reuse many things and also to improve the efficiency with which some of the things that we have extracted from the planet can be used, and this efficiency comes in multiple ways - getting more energy out of the same block of things, getting more agriculture productivity out of the same thing of water or we use the same resource multiple times - what is the waste of one process is then used as the input into the next process.

Maybe the best way to rephrase that technology question is, what are the most important technologies that we should be focused on today that guarantee us sustainability as a planet through this century with the idea that as overall education and affluence improves we will reduce fertility rates and bring the population under balance so we don’t have an exploding threat of population consuming no matter what we do with the current technology.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd