An interview on water :)

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Scientists generally have a look about them. Their offices reflect juxtaposition between the apparently drab and the beautiful. Michael Puma is no exception. Engineers and scientists often have the worst office spaces, with industrial carpet, starkly white walls, grey bookshelves and in this case even an exposed steam pipe.

But they find what matters in this drab space. Puma’s office is brightened by his children’s art, an eight sided Rubik’s cube, old play bills, paintings, and even a New York Knicks hat.

An adjunct profession at Columbia University in the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management Program, and head of the Water and Society Lab at Columbia University / NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Puma is a water guru.

Yet, he is completely down to earth, in jeans and a polo, all ease and comfort. With a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering, a master’s in Environmental Science and Policy and a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering, his background is more diverse than many working in his field.

We sat down to chat in the middle of a July heat wave in his office on Broadway in New York City. Below is the edited and condensed version of our conversation.

How did you come to love hydrology, was it through physics? Or how did you start out?

Yeah, it’s not a standard deal. Basically in high school I enjoyed physics. It was a challenge for me in the beginning, especially because I never thought in those terms of math, and linking the math with physical systems.

I took physics, when I decided I wanted to do civil engineering and build bridges. Then you quickly realized there’s plenty of bridges built already. So a lot of the civil engineering work is maintenance of bridges, reconstruction of bridges and that wasn’t so interesting. Fortunately, in the civil engineering, part of that department traditionally is water, water supply and waste water engineering. So I decided I didn’t want to do civil engineering in the second year of engineering school, but I was able to switch to environmental engineering. From there I focused on hydrology.

I did that environmental policy masters at the School of International Public Affairs (at Columbia University) right after my bachelor’s degree, so I got the masters in Environmental Science and Policy but at that point then I realized I wanted to be more of a technical expert as well and then work on policy. Because just having bachelors in engineering is not going to really cut it.

I got a job in an environmental engineering company but the work was very tedious, boring. You know it’s more like a business, you’re a project manager, it’s a different type of feel, and they are just applying standard methods to their problems. I worked for two companies and then I went back to graduate school for Hydrology, PhD.

How do you decide what to study? What to model and what to write papers on?

I have been looking for interesting questions on irrigation and its impacts on climate, how humans modify the land, which then has implication for regional climate. I have also been interested in links between water, agriculture and food security. This is sort of my pet project, looking at global food trade and its resilience to disturbance.

So if you have, say, a severe drought over say Asia, how that will impact global food trade? The way I’ve been looking at it is through a network approach. Where each country that’s involved in rice trade is a node in your network and then you keep track of the flows of rice between every single country in the network.

Now, say a severe drought occurs in Asia what happens if you remove all those countries affected by the drought from the global network of rice trade. Will we be in a situation where if you have a severe enough disturbance that global trade might collapse? And that’s the paper I’m trying to get done this summer. To look at how fragile global trade is to these types of climate disturbances.

Is that the paper you are working on with Bose, Chon and Cook?


So how do you think that your research will affect the poorest people on our planet, or do you think it will even affect them?

Ultimately, I think the link between water and food security is, well, if I had sufficient funding for that, that’s what I would spend all my time on.

I think that work is very specifically geared towards finding ways to design our water policy, our food policy, such that you would protect your vulnerable populations within a country. I mean, indeed protect the entire population, but of course the poorest portions of each country are going to be more susceptible.

So, I’m working on trying to find funding to focus on linking water to climate and agriculture. And that’s where I see the possibility of informing, of providing information that will help those who are very poor.

What are your thoughts on the indigenous knowledge of water systems? How do we most effectively blend local or indigenous knowledge and technology?

I think indigenous knowledge at the local level can be quite useful. One of the drawbacks of modern approaches is that they build very, very large systems. While they smooth out fluctuations from year to year, or decade to decade, they are very large and therefore prone to failure.

So I think indigenous technologies/approaches are by definition maybe smaller scale technologies or approaches that I think do or could play a significant role. There’s been a big push with rain water harvesting. This is moving toward more distributed type water supply system. I think that has an important role together with some modern approaches.

The good thing is if you adopt some of these technologies, it gives the people a bit more control over their circumstance, and a bit more freedom to solve their own problems and I think that’s nice.

How do you find teaching at Columbia University?

Teaching Water Governance was great, working with the students and it was great teaching the topic because it really opened my eyes to all the social issues for water.
The political and economic issues, issues of privatization of water, how those link to peoples political beliefs, and how you need to bring together people from all different sectors and political persuasions to discuss water issues.

The science of water or hydrology is only one component that contributes to the knowledge that’s accessible to the different stake holders in a discussion and that’s very important but it is only one piece of the puzzle.

The governmental policies and how you approach those are becoming to me more important as we move forward. That you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re using climate change and or water shortages as a justification for a policy that may or may not be equitable, may infringe on people’s rights.

Teaching Water Governance was a really great experience, so I’ll be doing that in the fall again. It was helpful for me to broaden my background, so I really enjoyed that class.

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