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New ASU water institute aims to challenge water and climate problems worldwide

ASU school charter sculpture Durham Hall
Tim Agne/KJZZ
The school charter on display outside Durham Hall on ASU's Tempe campus.

Water — and the future of water supplies — continue to be critical issues both here in Arizona and across the world. A new entity at ASU will aim to help find solutions to those concerns.

Upmanu Lall is a professor in ASU’s School of Complex Adaptive Systems and director of the new Water Institute at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. He joins The Show to talk about this new center.

Upmanu Lall speaking at event
Andy DeLisle/ASU
Upmanu Lall speaks at the "Global Water Futures: Anticipation and Innovation" event at the Walton Center for Planetary Health on March 22.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: What is the goal of this new enterprise?

UPMANU LALL: Yeah. So my previous job was at Columbia University in New York. And there I was leading the Columbia Water Center which was part of the Earth Institute. And the, the goal there is similar to the goal that we have at ASU, which is if you look around from a sustainability perspective, water is central to almost all aspects of life.

And I argue typically that if you look at the biggest impacts of climate, and of course, climate change aggravates those impacts, water is central to them. Sitting in Arizona or, or particularly in Phoenix, you probably think that temperature is also equally important, but if you didn't have water, Phoenix would not exist period, whereas definitely, you know, warmer temperature creates stress.

So the purpose of what we are trying to do with the Water institute is to bring together the capacity at the university to look for solutions to challenging water and climate problems worldwide, not just in Arizona.

BRODIE: So how will the work that this institute does differ from, you know, any of the work that other folks either in Arizona or elsewhere are doing?

LALL: Yeah. So the typical model in a public university in the U.S. is that you have a water research institute for the state that you're in. So the idea that we are viewing this from a global lens is different and you know, to be fair, there have been other universities that have tried to have global water programs, but they've really tried to just do what they were doing locally as a, you know, hydrologic exercise or as a water treatment systems exercise and saying, hey, we're going to go out to Africa and do the same thing or something like that.

What we are trying to do is to recognize that water and climate from a global perspective are inseparable. And similarly, whether you look at water treatment, whether you look at floods or if you look at water supply for agriculture, we need to look at it from the same lens and integrate these and that lens incorporates infrastructure.

It's not just the study of the science associated with moving water or the science associated with treatment. It's about how do you build an infrastructure that brings all those elements into the 21st century.

BRODIE: So when you look at the issue of water globally, are there things that Arizona does well that you think could be exported to other places and conversely, what kinds of lessons maybe do other places, you know, what kind of things do other places do lessons they have learned that maybe Arizona could bring in and adapt here.

LALL: Yeah, there those are really good questions because one of the first things we have done is to form a global water collaborator. Why we, why we are doing this and it's to really bring together the response exactly to your question. What are the things that we do?

Well, so at ASU specifically, we have world leading scientists on biological wastewater treatment on physical chemical water treatment, on atmospheric water technologies and so forth. And we hope to have the world's top program on climate science as it applies to water. And so those are the things, those are the examples of the kinds of things we want to contribute.

What we learned from other folks. Look, if I look at places in India, there are people who have been living in some of those places in desert conditions where the summer temperature is consistently above 110. So, if Phoenix is headed there, we need to understand how those people I've been making it the whole time without air conditioning for centuries. Right. So a lot of that goes into the way the houses are built and shaded and the circulation integrates the circulation of air from subsurface conditions where the temperatures really get about 55 degrees. So there's a lot that we can learn from both directions that we are already taking steps to do that.

BRODIE: When you talk about the link between water and climate, I wonder if you almost when it comes to, you know, planning for water use and water scarcity in the future, do you almost have to maybe take it on two tracks? You know, one plan for, you know, if climate change continues in the way that a lot of scientists say that it will and one if we are able to sort of stop it or reduce it somewhat, I would imagine those would be sort of two different plans of action as it relates to water use.

LALL: What we are trying to do is think about ways by which we can apply the understanding of how climate itself works to two things. One is how could we regulate the supply of water both on floods and what happens on an annual basis? And second, how do we anticipate some of these things? And then design use systems that are robust to whatever nature throws at us basically.

So my personal research, one of the things that I'm trying to work on is is it possible with small amounts of energy to shift the trajectory of atmospheric rivers so that if they were going to have landfall in a place which already is wet at that particular time and would get catastrophically flooded if the atmospheric river landed there, we move it, the water now ends up going where we need it.

BRODIE: Well, that's so interesting. You're talking about potentially taking a, a storm, a major rainstorm that was going to hit California maybe and cause massive flooding and just shifting it eastward, maybe to a place like Arizona where our reservoirs could really use the rain like that. That seems like science fiction.

LALL:  Yeah. What I'll say in response to that is that many of the things that we use today were predicted in the 1950s by science fiction writers, but not by scientists.

BRODIE: So, one of the big conversations, as I'm sure, you know, here in Arizona is that the conversation and, and the discussion, I guess between water conservation and water augmentation and sort of which role each of those has. I'm curious to get your thoughts on the roles of conservation versus the roles of finding new sources of water.

LALL: So, my response to that is if you're in a place like Arizona, you're at you have to be at the forefront of both of those. Phoenix has turned from a sleepy little place to a hustling bustling city, which is the fifth-largest metro in the country. How do you preserve that metro? If you don't do both of those things, it's not either or, you know, we, we have to be doing both and we have to be aggressive about that and judicious about that. So, that's my short answer to that one.

BRODIE: Sure. All right. Upmanu Lall, director of the Water Institute at ASU. Thank you so much for your time. Thanks for the conversation. I really appreciate it.

LALL: Great. Thanks.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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