Sediment buildup in reservoirs formed by dams is a multi-billion dollar global problem and a major focus of Farhed Shah’s research. As a result of multi-year interdisciplinary efforts, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics Associate Professor Shah and his collaborators developed software to help policy makers deal with reservoir sedimentation. The computer program is used around the world.
However, a large part of Shah’s influence on the world is through people, especially students. He engages them in the classroom and welcomes students from all corners of the globe to participate in his research projects. Shah’s enthusiasm is palpable. “Students are life to me,” he said.
The admiration is mutual. “Dr. Shah is the best!!!,” wrote honors student Chris Bruno when referring to his teacher and undergraduate advisor. Bruno says that Shah is a mentor who helps students apply what they learn in the classroom to potential careers. “He has also spent time outside of class teaching me about various topics like game theory, non-market valuation, project life-cycles and life in general,” Bruno said.
In addition to advising ten undergraduate students, Shah willingly accepts the responsibility of guiding five masters and four PhD students. One advisee, Yoon Young Choi, said that Shah was especially helpful in getting her acclimated to the United States when she moved from South Korea to work on her PhD. “Dr. Shah was the reason why I chose UConn,” Choi said. She likens him to a marathon coach who is encouraging her toward the finish line in the long PhD “race.” “If I face a challenging problem in the process of research, he wants to figure it out together no matter how much time it takes,” Choi said.
Graduate students Yuan Niu and Vivien Tang agree. Niu, from China, thinks Shah’s mentoring was a great basis for beginning her research career. Tang said, “His goal is always to give them (students) the support they need, and in turn, they will … become the best economists they can be.”
His students’ experiences seem to show that Shah is making a difference with what he calls his “love of teaching and transfer of knowledge.” Furthermore, Provost Mun Choi acknowledged Shah’s classroom success in 2014 and 2015 with a letter of recognition that goes to only a small percentage of UConn’s faculty.
Shah has always made graduate students an integral part of his research. For the reservoir sedimentation project, they came to Storrs from Japan, India and Thailand and joined an international team of economists and engineers. The World Bank, an organization that aims to reduce poverty, funded the three-year project. The Japanese student, Shigekazu Kawashima, is now using his graduate student experience as a Miyagi University faculty member in Japan.
Some results of the research include an open source software program called RESCON, which stands for Reservoir Conservation, and a two-volume book describing its methodological approach and use. RESCON continues to be useful, and references to it appear in sedimentation management books, science journals, research papers and an International Commission on Large Dams bulletin. In addition, it is a foundation for graduate theses in the United States and beyond.
A sediment management tool like RESCON is important because dams are moneymakers. If they are not properly maintained, they are financially risky and an environmental safety hazard. When sediment builds up, it can cause problems, such as reducing the drinking and irrigation storage capacity of the reservoir and decreasing hydropower production. Eventually, sedimentation could cause the dam to lose its main function or weaken the structure. In 2010, Gerrit Basson, a renowned expert on reservoir sedimentation, estimated the global impact to be $17 billion each year.
Variables not considered in RESCON, such as climate change, dynamics of a series of dams, watershed management and water quality up and downstream, also affect the economics of reservoir sedimentation. Shah and his students continue to build on the initial research by studying these related factors.
Two agricultural and resource economics doctoral graduates, Yoon Lee, now on the faculty at South Korea’s Sun Moon University, and Taeyeon Yoon, a research fellow at the Korea Energy Economics Institute, worked on improvements to the software. In 2011, both were instrumental in developing an extended version of RESCON for application to dams in China and Ethiopia.
Often, when students graduate and go back to places like India, Thailand, Japan or New York, they become principal investigators or chief developers in their own right. In their research collaborations with Shah, their names might appear first before his on the resulting papers or computer software. But, Shah does not seem to mind. He is very proud of them when he says, “I am the kind of guy who doesn’t work well alone. I would be completely useless without my students.” Stories from his students suggest that the feeling is mutual.
By Patsy Evans