The last World Environment Day, globally celebrated on June 5, served as an important reminder of the importance of environmental conservation. In the pursuit of protecting our planet, two significant concepts have emerged in the field of water management: water economics, water informatics and water management practices to shape a sustainable future. These interconnected disciplines play a vital role in safeguarding our natural resources and fostering sustainable development. The advancements in hydro informatics offer promising solutions to address pressing environmental challenges.
Academia Magazine recently had an insightful conversation with Dr Abubakr Muhammad, Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Water Informatics and Technology (WIT) at LUMS. Dr Abubakr has a doctorate in Electrical Engineering with expertise in developing innovative strategies for efficient water use and promoting sustainable practices. He actively collaborates with organizations and industry leaders to implement practical solutions to water-related challenges. His exceptional work in this area has earned him notable recognition for his contributions to ensuring environmental sustainability.
Following are the excerpts from this recent conversation.
1. Please explain the concepts of water economics and water informatics and how they are linked to protecting the environment.
To explain it to a farmer who is concerned about water management on the farm, the economics of water is related to making the right choices and decisions about the type of water to be used for irrigation (e.g. canal or groundwater), what kind of technology to pick for water application and conservation (e.g. pumps, drip, sprinklers etc.) and how to maximize productivity for crop production using water as one of the inputs. Water informatics is related to the availability of information and the extracted knowledge by using new digital tools that have become recently available. Informatics can aid decision-making on the choices tackled by economics. It especially helps in making real-time decisions on how much to irrigate, when to irrigate, and choosing the source for irrigation. Weather forecasts, the status of the farm’s soil moisture, canal flows, groundwater levels, and snowmelt rates, are all useful sources of information to help the farmer make real-time decisions. For policymakers and water managers, water economics is about incentivizing farmers to make the right choices by setting fair prices for water usage and making the right mix of technologies available. Water informatics helps farmers collect data on large scales, perform water accounting, run investment models and scenarios, and make informed choices.
2. What is hydro informatics and how can the current advancements in this field help tackle our most pressing environmental problems?
Hydro informatics is an academic term for digital tools that are deployed for water management and governance. On one hand, there is great excitement about the maturity and promise of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, satellite sensing, robotics, drones, and ICT in general. However, the problems of environmental degradation such as air, land, and water pollution are turning out to be more complex than we thought. Technology is not the only way to tackle such problems, but it is a great vehicle to understand their complexity.
3. Tell us about the revolutionary research and innovation efforts underway at WIT and their intended short and long-term goals.
One thing we are very proud of is that we have not fallen for short-term opportunistic ventures but we have always looked ahead and tackled hard problems. Sometimes these problems have taken us more than a decade to solve. To give you a specific example, we started to think about demand management in irrigation by developing telemetry systems and related automations back in 2010. In paper after paper, we looked at challenges related to making instruments for sensing, communicating sensor data, obtaining simple models from complex flows, devising feedback control policies, and studying decision-making in large networks of water users. This compelled us to look at problems ranging from hardcore engineering problems of software and electronics to experimental game design in social science research. We learned all that was required to be learnt, regardless of the discipline, and continued to synthesize this knowledge for over a decade until we were able to help with a major intervention by the Government of Punjab to rethink canal water allocation using principles of demand management. The algorithms, instruments, and methods we are delivering right now rest on the excellent work by multiple faculty members, students, technicians, field staff, and research assistants over the years. We have sought to answer one fundamental question: can we deliver water in the fields without compromising the farmer’s needs and simultaneously conserve water for the system?
4. How is interdisciplinary research shaping the innovation agenda at WIT?
Like the example given above, our research is very much problem-driven. Another big question for WIT has been: can we make agriculture sustainable for small farmers? In answering this, we have teamed up with life scientists, economists, computer scientists, agronomists, electrical engineers, and environmental scientists in creating a ‘digital sustainable agriculture facility’. This is a living lab on campus, which is also perhaps Pakistan’s most sophisticated farm on which data is being collected by robotic drones equipped with laser scanners and multispectral cameras at every inch and every hour to answer some fundamental science questions, such as: Why is it that, paradoxically, some farmers can grow crops without losing productivity by using fewer inputs? What are the biological drivers of soil regeneration? What crop varieties respond to more sustainable practices of water and soil management? Can a piece of land be used simultaneously for solar energy generation and crop production? What practices help sequester more carbon than others, and thereby reduce emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change? How can we design crop varieties that better manage water stress during droughts? Can recycled waste water be useful in irrigation?
More than ten faculty members have invested their energies to develop this facility where advanced robotic phenotyping is answering questions on crop genomics, plant physiology and agrivoltaics. The WIT center has the humble role of coordinating these efforts and providing logistical and scientific support to faculty.
5. How does WIT communicates its strategic recommendations to the Government to adopt for implementation?
WIT faculty and experts are part of various taskforces, advisory boards and committees that assist various government agencies. Occasionally, various scientific outcomes and technological demonstrations are presented to the concerned government departments and agencies. WIT helps train government officials in cutting-edge tools and exposes them to international best practices by linking our collaborators in the WIT research network with government departments.