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Lessons from the MIT Water Club

Urban planning student Isadora Araujo Cruxen is a leader in MIT's Water Club, a forum for discussion and teaching about water technology, policy, and science.
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Isadora Cruxen
Isadora Cruxen

Isadora Araujo Cruxen, a master in city planning candidate within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, chairs the lecture series for the MIT Water Club

With nearly a thousand students, professionals, and academics on its mailing list — and typically drawing more than 250 attendees to its most popular events — the Water Club serves as a forum for discussion and teaching about water technology, policy, and science. In addition to the lectures Cruxen helps to organize, it holds roundtables, workshops, and social events to explore pressing issues in the water sector, showcase MIT’s cutting-edge research, and facilitate networking among faculty and students working in this arena. This spring, the club also established MIT’s first competition for water-related start-ups; it will award $20,000 in seed funding following the final pitch showcase on April 6. 

For Cruxen, water issues are far from abstract. A native of Brazil, which is currently battling a catastrophic drought, she has spent much of her education and career pursuing the idea that citizens can take an active role in how such challenges are addressed. Cruxen holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Brasília. Prior to MIT, she worked as a research assistant at Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research on projects about public participation in policy development. She was also involved in organizing the International Children and Youth Conference “Let’s Take Care of the Planet” and the elaboration of Brazil’s plan of action for the Open Government Partnership.

MIT Spectrum asked Cruxen about her experiences with the MIT Water Club and how her personal background informs her participation.

Q: What kinds of speakers would you like to bring to campus?

A: We want to encourage multidisciplinary exchange. Water Club members have a diverse array of research interests such as desalination technologies, access to safe water, and sustainable water resources management. While past lectures have been successful in providing insight into innovative engineering approaches, we would like to have more guests address policy making and governance, which are key dimensions in water provision, access, and sustainability.

Q: How does water relate to your work at MIT, and what you expect to do after you finish your degree?

A: I’m interested in exploring collective-action networks for the improvement and democratization of urban governance, particularly water governance. The unprecedented water crisis affecting the largest city in Brazil, São Paulo, presents a timely opportunity to explore this issue as different civil society groups are coming together to create an agenda in response to the crisis and advocate for better water policies.

While my work prior to MIT was not directly connected to water — I primarily worked with public participation in policy development — it exposed me to initiatives from different countries to foster citizen engagement and improve water quality, and delivery. One particular case that stuck with me was Tanzania’s ongoing challenge to access safe water. To tackle the problem, Tanzania’s government worked with civil society organizations, NGOs, stakeholders, and other developers to implement a water point mapping system that collects data on water-supply services and helps in planning future investments in resources.

Initiatives such as Tanzania’s motivate me to pursue a career involving policy analysis and planning in developing regions. Through applied research and participatory designs, I hope to contribute to blueprints and policies that lead to greater equality and deepen democracy.

Q: What water-related research at MIT are you excited about?

A: I am fortunate to currently work as a research assistant to Professor Gabriella Carolini, whose research on water and sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa introduces a more comprehensive and contextual approach to water governance in the global south. Through three analytical lenses — affordability, accessibility, and adequacy — she addresses water and sanitation challenges in the region and contests the urban-rural divide that characterizes many research efforts by exploring blurred boundaries and diversity within communities.

Q: How do your Brazilian origins affect your perspective on water issues?

A: These crises are shared globally; however, how needs are met in different contexts requires a tailored response. Each of my classmates brings with his or her own diverse background a unique understanding of those needs. Such diversity can be leveraged to strengthen our ability to respond to pressing problems.

As for the water crisis in Brazil, I think it demonstrates the destabilizing potential of a draught amid inadequate water resources management. Brazil has a wealth of resources, but there is need for greater collaboration among local governments to improve regional management, as well as for policies focusing on sustainable management, recovery, and restoration of water sources. Further, as demonstrated by the current civil society mobilization in response to the crisis, there is a need for greater transparency and public involvement in water governance.

Q: Has your time at MIT changed the way you think about water?

A: Even were I not involved in the Water Club, it would be difficult for someone in city planning to not be affected in some way by the critical questions facing not only São Paulo but here in the United States — see the recent crisis in California — and further abroad.

For some time we have understood that accessibility to potable water would take its place among the world’s most pressing issues, and the need for efficacious yet democratic solutions is critical. If anything, my experiences at MIT have strengthened my belief in the importance of bridging disciplinary approaches, seeking a more nuanced understanding of diverse contexts, and devising solutions through dialogue and collaboration.

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