To Keep People from Going Thirsty

Discoveries at the U of M are changing how we use and conserve water

Around the world, fresh water is vanishing.

“In Kazakhstan there’s a place called the Aralkum Desert,” says Dr. David Mulla. “Everywhere you look, there are ships and fishing boats. That’s because it used to be part of the Aral Sea, which is now all but dried up.”

David Mulla David Mulla, Professor

Soil, Water, and Climate

Time lapse of the disappearance of the Aral Sea
The Aral Sea is disappearing at an alarming rate

Once one of the largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s, after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects in Kazakhstan. Today, only 10 percent of the lake remains.

  • Boats in the Aralkum Desert
    60,000 people have abandoned their fishing livelihood
  • Flood irrigation
    Inefficient flood irrigation is practiced due to an unreliable water supply
  • Fish
    800 species of birds, mammals, and fish have disappeared

“When people don’t have enough clean water, they go thirsty,” Mulla says. “When countries don’t, they go to war.”

That’s why he and other researchers at the University of Minnesota are changing the way countries use and conserve water.

Precision—from agriculture to water conservation

U researchers pioneered “precision agriculture”—one of the top ten innovations in agriculture ever. It enables farmers to apply exactly the right mix of seeds, fertilizers, and herbicide to get the most out of fields while sustaining the environment.

Now we’re pioneering precision water conservation. We’ve created an environment benefits index for key regions to determine where conservation resources should be focused for the greatest ROI. For example, U research has helped subsistence farmers in Morocco develop more sustainable soil and water usage practices.

“When people don’t have enough clean water, they go thirsty. When countries don’t, they go to war.”

It’s our comprehensive approach that enables the University of Minnesota to tackle global problems—combining research in agronomy, applied economics, forest services, computer science, design, engineering, and public policy.

David Mulla is resolved to meet the world’s water challenges — and even bring back the Aral Sea. “If it takes me the rest of my life, I’m going to solve this,” he says.