Amid a changing climate, population growth, rapid development, and pervasive urbanization, an unprecedented threat to the world’s food and water supply is more apparent than ever before. In fact, it is predicted that 70 percent more food will be needed by 2050 and the demand for water will triple.
"To date, we’ve met the food and water challenge to a significant extent through technology, as exemplified in the 'green revolution,' but there are still significant problems to solve. We’re optimistic that MIT will have a major role in meeting the world’s challenges around food and water supply," John Lienhard, director of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT, said in the opening remarks at the third annual MIT Water Summit held Nov. 13-14 on campus.
"Workshops such as this are critical to raise awareness and build momentum towards solving the grand water challenges of our world," said Elfatih Eltahir, associate department head and a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). "The Water Summit was a wonderful opportunity for open and transparent discussions that helped in reaching better definitions of water problems and paved the way for new and innovative solutions."
An MIT Water Club team — comprised of MIT graduate students Reetik Kumar Sahu, Anjuli Jain Figueroa, Alexis Fischer, Matthew Willner, Brendan Smith, and Isadora Cruxen — organized this year’s Water Summit into three conversation panels: Interpret, Innovate, and Implement. The team brought together more than 200 members of the MIT and non-MIT communities to discuss the role of climate change in global water challenges.
Over the course of two days, several representatives from academia, government, and industry were invited to present.
Adaptation to climate change means embracing uncertainty
"The biggest risk to our water systems is our social norms," Col. John Henderson of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. "We, as a society, may not be adapting fast enough." Of course, the path leading to full adaptation to climate change is far from clear, he added.
The Interpret panel included Henderson, Camille Touton of the U. S. Department of the Interior, Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Manoj Fenelon of the Aspen Institute, and MIT graduate student Jordon Hemingway as moderator.
One major hindrance that Fenelon said prevents climate adaptation is the way the problem is framed. "How do you explain the challenge in a way that causes people to realize it is bigger than their individual interests?" he asked.
To emphasize, Touton said that 50 percent of the world is in severe drought — a negative impact of climate change that many do not directly experience. Using open water data to visualize the impact of drought and climate change on water resources, she said, is one aspect of the problem that her department investigates and reports to the public.
"The world is teeming with answers, but are we asking the right questions?" Fenelon added. Perspectives unrelated to science — such as considering water as a right rather than a luxury — may result in interesting and efficient approaches to the challenge.
Leveraging branding, for instance, was one such approach explored by the panel. "I would be interested to see brands engage in civil work," Fenelon said. "Consumers would be buying not just a brand, but a movement."
In agreement, Doney added it’s not the destination that matters, but rather how quickly society manages to get there. When it comes to climate change and the global water supply, the rate of change heavily impacts the natural ecosystems.
However, the panelists agreed, the key to truly engaging open interest is to pitch the science behind climate change in a way that attracts stakeholders and, more importantly, the general public.
The future is about radical transparency
In their remarks on how technological innovations and research have led to more resilient water systems, the Innovate panelists — Noel Bakhtian, lead strategic coordinator on Energy-Water Nexus activities for the U.S. Department of Energy; Marcus Quigley, founder of OptiRTC; Anarug Bajpayee, co-founder and CEO of Gradiant Corporation; Mark Ellison, U.S. affiliate of IDE Technologies; and MIT graduate student and panel moderator Divya Panchanathan — offered a hopeful, yet guarded, perspective.
For Quigley, the world needs a future of “radical transparency” of data. With an open explanation of the reality of water, he postulated that this approach will transform the manner in which we act and develop regulations around water management.
"We need to be creative with data science and make water information more meaningful for the public to digest," he said.
Noting society’s hesitancy to trust new innovations in the water sector, Bajpayee suggested some of the challenge may also lie with people’s misconception of the value of water.
"People think water is free when it’s not," he said. "Something is paying for it. Explaining this openly and clearly may help people appreciate how important it is to conserve energy and water."
When it comes down to it, Quigley continued, our perception on what we think the world should look like is irrelevant. The gateway to water management is about delivering the outcomes people expect, and furthermore educating them on why they should expect those outcomes from a political perspective.
The panelists contended that the world would benefit from focusing more on a transparent understanding of the projected outcome and less on what society portrays as an ideal world.
One way to achieve this may be for water businesses to expand their reach beyond one idea and emphasize an entire market or specialized sector.
"The most successful companies are those who have evolved along the way," Bajpayee said. "Water entrepreneurs should build businesses around an entire platform, not just one innovation."
Climate change is no longer about belief, but fact
To close the Water Summit on the second day, keynote speaker Curt Spalding of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) for New England introduced the Implement panel with a discussion on the hard evidence and implications of climate change.
Spalding said 70 percent of the population accepts that climate change is happening, and, because of this, progression is being made to both mitigate and adapt to the reality. "Adaptation is a priority and is integrated into every decision made by the EPA," he said. However, it’s not always as high a priority as it should be for others, he added.
Spalding emphasized the need to communicate complex data to the implementers for real movement to be made in the fight against climate change. This notion was further explored in the panel, moderated by MIT graduate student Alice Alpert, and comprised of Edgar Westerhof of ARCADIS U.S. Inc., Stephen Estes-Smargiassi of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Dennis Carlberg of Boston University, and Larry Susskind, the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT.
According to Susskind, the hindrance to true innovation in policy implementation is mainly the lack of collaboration between leaders and the public. "No decision is ever going to be completely correct, so we will have to collaboratively adapt as things evolve," he said.
Estes-Smargiassi agreed, and added that it is equally important to embrace any potential opportunity to build resiliency — even if the timing or innovation is not perfect.
"Each opportunity that we fail to grasp, puts us further behind," he said. "Let’s figure out which steps we should take now to continue to move ahead later." Particularly, participatory planning is a crucial part of resiliency planning; otherwise, he explained, there may not be buy-in.
Corporation mitigation efforts and sponsoring of events, such as the international Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 in Paris, has a powerful effect in changing the public image of what’s being done today. While concrete conclusions may not necessarily be drawn from efforts such as these, confidence is built for the long-term. And this, the panelists agreed, is effective in the process of managing water in a time of a changing climate.
"The MIT community is deeply motivated to contribute," Lienhard said. "Our students and faculty are bringing their insight, innovation, and technical excellence to bear on the challenge of water management."
Sponsors for this year's Water Summit included Arcadis, Association of Student Activities, MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, CEE, the Coop at MIT, Desalitech, Environmental Policy and Planning Group, Gradiant Corporation, J-WAFS, MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, MIT Brazil, the WHOI, Pepsico, and WRI Brazil.u