Solving Water Conflicts With Engineering and Empathy. Q&A with Dr. Marc Muller

Author: Tom Springer

Solving Water Conflicts With Engineering and Empathy. Q&A with Dr. Marc Muller

Dr. Marc Muller is assistant professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences and an affiliated faculty member of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative (ND-ECI). He joined the university in 2017 and his background combines engineering with humanitarian efforts designed to reduce conflict around water scarcity. He discussed his early impressions and aspirations in this Q&A session with ND-ECI.

Q: As a newcomer to Notre Dame, what do you hope to achieve here that perhaps you couldn't achieve elsewhere?  

A: Two things really stand out to me: First, there is a genuine focus on multi-disciplinary research that focuses on large, key issues of our time. Sure, pluridisciplinary centers and initiatives are the rage everywhere, but often it is mostly lip service and marketing. Here at Notre Dame, these initiatives really connect me to an incredible density of talent, and invaluable opportunities to collaborate beyond my discipline. I have already written grants with biologists, lawyers, economists, climate modelers and political scientists during my ten months here. Second, I can really sense that faith is a central part of the university’s identity. This deep desire to improve the world through our scholarship and research transpires in my daily interactions with my colleagues and students, and is incredibly motivating.

Q: Disagreements over water rights between nations can be a major source of potential conflict. In your research on transboundary water use, have you found any solutions or technologies that could help lessen these tensions?  

A: Let me say at the outset that these issues are incredibly complex, and anyone who could truly solve them would probably win the next Nobel Peace Prize. What I have done so far is definitely only piecework, but hopefully promising. One key obstacle for collaboration is the lack of credible communication when it comes to water use, because parties do not have access to “objective” information that could be used for contracts. This is where satellite data can potentially be transformative; except that it doesn’t directly measure water availability (streamflow) and water use. We can infer it partly through models, but that introduces uncertainty in our predictions. The big question (and what lot of my research focuses on) is whether this source of information, non-partisan but noisy, can be used to facilitate cooperation.

Q: You've worked on humanitarian projects in Cambodia, Tanzania and Nepal. How does your work in resource-scarce areas such as these influence your thinking as an engineer?

A: Engineers can be too focused on improving technical issues, without regard to the greater social context. My experience has taught me that empathy is crucial, and that my contribution will only be valuable if I can put myself in someone else’s shoes. This often requires leaving the comfort zone of a lab, and going on the ground to experience local realities, listen to the locals and learn from them. Some issues appear purely technical on the surface, but hide much broader concerns. For example, as I was helping to build a water network in Tanzania, there were repeated reports of sabotage on a nearby water network. To our surprise, the culprits were the local women who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of improved water access. Why would they undermine the project that was meant to make their lives easier? Well, it turns out that fetching water was an integral part of their social role, and they actually cherished the time away from their husbands. Water that was readily available in their village meant a lost opportunity for private chats with their female friends.

Q: Are there any new research interests or projects on the horizon that you're excited about?

A: I am interested at the intersection between information, armed conflict, and water resources. In a recent study, we have shown that the Syrian conflict had an impact on the water distribution on a regional scale. It is exciting to do such timely research even when war makes it impossible to set foot on the ground. This is where satellite data really amazes me, because it opens up so many new opportunities! By applying similar techniques in other war zones, I hope to ultimately help develop remote sensing tools that can prevent further conflicts.