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Pooling MIT’s resources to ‘rethink’ water

Workshop assesses scope of water research currently underway at Institute, eyes work that lies ahead.

In early May, a ruptured water pipe caused a breach in Boston’s water supply that forced 2 million residents to boil water for several days. That inconvenience should serve as a “striking reminder” of the daily reality for more than one billion people across the world who don’t have access to clean water, President Susan Hockfield told about 280 members of the MIT community at a workshop on Friday.

“We have an obligation — a responsibility — to act,” Hockfield said at the workshop, titled “Rethinking Water: A Critical Resource.” The event was intended to provide a glimpse of the range of work currently being done at MIT to address the scarcity of fresh water worldwide, and how MIT must help to address that crisis by designing better water systems and policies to be adopted across different geographic and cultural contexts.

With more than 50 faculty members from each of MIT’s five schools working on issues related to water, the Institute already has a “running start” on water-related research and education, Hockfield said.

The workshop came just as MIT’s Environmental Research Council (ERC) issued a report outlining six research areas where MIT faculty and students can build on existing strength in multiple disciplines to advance solutions to environmental challenges of global significance. One of those areas is water, a resource described in the report as “arguably more vital than oil, but routinely squandered.”

Although MIT faculty and students are already working on a range of water-related issues, such as studying the exchange between the oceans and the atmosphere, developing cost-effective desalinization technologies and creating and implementing innovative water policy mechanisms, much work remains. Hockfield urged workshop participants to use the ERC report as a critical framework to guide continued collaboration across the Institute on research and teaching related to the environment.

The morning portion of the workshop was geared toward discussing what MIT is currently doing to address water issues. Faculty members from each of the five schools presented examples of research projects related to water — everything from how the resource is affected by patterns of evaporation and precipitation to how it travels through soil to how it is considered to be a human health hazard in countries like Bangladesh because it carries toxins like arsenic.. During the afternoon session, the workshop featured several panel discussions that focused on MIT’s long-term goals for tacking water issues, such as scaling water solutions.

“This is only a start,” said James Wescoat, the Aga Khan Professor of Architecture in MIT’s Department of Architecture, of the workshop, which he helped organize and hoped would be used as a platform to guide future events about water issues at MIT.

This fall, the ERC is expected to complete a detailed implementation plan about building a strong environmental initiative at MIT.

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