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Urban water scarcity takes center stage at MIT Water Summit

Experts gather at MIT to share insights, techniques, and strategies for building resilient urban water systems.
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Throughout the MIT Water Club’s November Water Summit, attendees from industry, government, and academia engaged in detailed discussions on how cities across the globe can meet water scarcity with resilience strategies.
Throughout the MIT Water Club’s November Water Summit, attendees from industry, government, and academia engaged in detailed discussions on how cities across the globe can meet water scarcity with resilience strategies.
Photo: Andi Sutton/J-WAFS

“By 2030, there will be a 40 percent gap between water supply and demand. That means that for every five people in this room, only three will have water,” said Mary Conley Egger, the opening keynote speaker at the annual MIT Water Summit.

Eggert, vice president of Global Water Works, emphasized those figures to underscore the urgency behind this year’s theme of “​Thirsty Cities,” addressing the severity of the crisis surrounding our water resources. Over 200 presenters and attendees gathered for two days to address the issues together.

The sixth annual summit was hosted by the MIT Water Club and co-sponsored by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, J-WAFS research affiliate Xylem, Inc., as well as other external supporters. The high-profile conference is one of the student group’s signature initiatives. Featuring MIT and external experts, the summit brought together water sector professionals from industry, academia, government, and non-governmental organizations to share ideas and resources, and propose innovative solutions.

Why cities?

Approximately 50 percent of the current global population lives in cities. By 2050, that number is predicted to rise to 70 percent. Yet due to a combination of factors — including outdated infrastructure, inefficient water reuse methods, and a general lack of consumer consciousness about water conservation — water utilities are already struggling to meet existing consumer demand. What's more, global urbanization trends and corresponding increases in consumption associated with rising incomes are resulting in a growing demand for potable water. Water systems relying on energy-intensive technologies to meet this increased demand can be expensive and unsustainable.

The impacts of global urbanization on water supply are being further exacerbated by climate change, and can already be seen in the growing list of cities and regions experiencing drought and water scarcity crises. The starkest example is Cape Town, South Africa, whose water supply crisis hit the news last year, and was the motivation behind the theme of this year’s summit. Cape Town officials announced their anticipated “Day Zero” (the day when their taps were predicted to run dry), making this city the first to potentially run out of water. Day Zero, originally estimated to occur in March of 2018, was extended following the success of stringent water consumption restrictions for the towns’ residents. Water levels in reservoirs have since recovered somewhat, but the city’s precarious situation exemplifies how the consequences of climate’s influence on water security are already being experienced.

Add to that the example of California’s severe drought of recent years and related current wildfires, which were still raging when the summit convened, and the connection between water supply challenges and climate change are hard to ignore. 

Yet, as keynote speaker Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, put it, “we as a society are not looking at the long term.” When it comes to water use and water infrastructure planning, she said, “we are making a lot of short-term decisions.”

In another keynote talk, Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, agreed, noting that cities develop water systems with the assumption that the future is going to look like the past. This affects their resiliency, as improvements in water efficiency can affect the functioning of water and wastewater systems in the future. Presenters and attendees alike acknowledged that this approach can’t continue and that innovative solutions and responsive system planning are needed in order to construct resilient and sustainable systems.

Panels explored every aspect of urban water systems, from diplomacy and management, to water markets, to tech and engineering strategies, in an effort to engage participants in the various aspects of the problem space and explore solutions. While conversations approached challenges from multidisciplinary fields and backgrounds, the same message grounded each and every solution: building a resilient urban water supply requires conversation, collaboration, and coordination.

Addressing complexity through conversation

“Even though water seems very straightforward, it’s wicked complex,” said Chi Ho Sham, vice president and chief scientist of the Eastern Research Group, who addressed the need for innovation in the water sector. Much of the research at MIT is driven by a strong belief in the benefits of technological solutions and innovations, however building resilient urban water systems requires more than that. Sham noted that policy changes, regulatory governance, implementation by municipalities, and consumer adoption are essential to ensure that tech advances in the water sector reach their potential. 

Many speakers and moderators across the two-day Summit proposed to address this complexity with a seemingly simple solution: get people together. In the words of Kent Portney, professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, “all the voices need to be incorporated in this [water policy and governance] process” because every stakeholder has something unique and relevant to bring to the table. Governmental bodies, utility providers, policy makers, daily consumers, and researchers each have varied — and sometimes differing — interests, questions, and perspectives that any one individual may not be able to anticipate.

Megan Plumlee, director of research and development for the Orange County Water District in California, remarked that connecting technology providers and academics with the utilities and their customers is the way to establish broad success in the water sector. She provided compelling examples where stakeholder engagement was essential to ensuring technology adoption, including a National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center called “Re-inventing the Nation’s urban Water Infrastructure” (ReNUWit). ReNUWit connects academics to industry partners to test new research and technology, so that, if successful, it can be put into practice more quickly and achieve greater uptake by consumers. This interdisciplinary approach allows industry stakeholders to interact with water sector researchers and to discuss new ideas and strategies, while simultaneously allowing water researchers to find out about real-world challenges facing the utilities.

Other presenters emphasized stakeholder engagement as an essential step in policy creation, adoption, and planning. Lawrence Susskind, the Ford Professor of Environmental and Urban Planning at MIT, discussed one high-profile negotiation scenario involving cross-border water sharing along the Nile River. Government leaders have a natural instinct to take as much water as possible to provide for their people, however such actions can jeopardize water security for downstream populations — entire countries in the case of the Nile. His proposed solution? Talk. He said officials, technical experts, stakeholders and users need to collaborate in an informal and community-minded atmosphere, a strategy he has employed successfully through the mediation and conflict resolution services employed by his nonprofit The Consensus Building Institute, as well as in his MIT teaching. He noted that many government leaders can be afraid of looking weak, especially when appealing to other countries for help, but with matters as complex as water management across international borders, open collaboration is the only way to ensure success.

Yet another collaboration strategy highlighted at the summit is to more effectively connect existing solutions with those who need them, by consolidating information and resources and bringing people together to learn about them. Lauren Nicole Core from the World Bank spoke of the bank’s work on “demystifying solutions that are already available” through the Water Scarce Cities Initiative. She emphasized the fact that many effective technologies and policies have already been developed for the water sector, and some water challenges can be solved merely by matching a strategy that already exists to a water challenge in a particular region or municipality. This initiative is currently connecting diverse utilities and stakeholders across the globe to solutions though in-person events and online resources that stimulate dialogue, knowledge flow, and collaboration.

Water markets call for collaboration and coordination

Who owns the water we use? How do we allocate it? How is it distributed? The answers to these questions vary all over the world, and in many cases the answers themselves cause problems and conflict. Meanwhile, demand grows and in many regions, water supplies are being depleting.

In the face of urgent water scarcity issues, several experts at the summit discussed how economics can serve as a powerful tool to manage global water resources and ensure that they are more efficiently used. In a panel focused on water markets, they discussed the opportunities for and challenges of creating a formalized structure for water to be priced and traded. However, with so many stakeholders invested in water resources, coordination across many different users and regulators is essential to ensure that any market-based solution is just and equitable as well as effective. Carlos de la Torre, an advisor in fiscal transparency in Central America said he believes that to employ a system for water regulation and pricing, key stakeholders from a variety of sectors need to be brought together to co-define the problem, co-create alternatives, and co-select a joint action plan.

Featured presenter James Workman, founder of AquaShares, also discussed water markets, water pricing, and water regulation with a particular emphasis on the importance of stakeholder coordination. He discussed the example of the Kalahari Bushmen of Southern Africa. This community thrives despite the water scarce desert environment in which they live. How do they do it?  Through a self-organized, self-regulated local autonomous water market that encourages resiliency through individual trading. According to Workman, this market “turned crisis into cooperation and scarcity into abundance.” Inspired by the equitable distribution system that he witnessed when traveling in Africa, James created AquaShares, an online water market that enables users to earn money by saving water, providing a reward system for living in a more water efficient way. The system combines pillars of motivation and information to coordinate conflict-free water share allocation across firms, farms, and families.

Communication spurs action

Peppered throughout the summit’s discussion of urban water sector challenges and solutions was an acknowledgement of “the human factor” — the ways in which culture, history, and habit influence human behavior and can limit the adoption of water efficiency strategies. Conversation, collaboration, and coordination seek to leverage the human factor in order to make positive and lasting change. Colin Kuehl, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, noted that while the data clearly demonstrate the urgent need for water conservation, when working with stakeholders, information is not enough. Through his research in social psychology he has identified a three-tiered communication strategy employing information, motivation, and behavioral skills that most effectively influences behavior change: inform consumers about a water issue or crisis; provide both values-based as well as social norms-based motivation; and provide concrete actions to encourage behavior change. 

As Jonathan Baker, an associate with the Analysis Group stated, “what we [did] in the past certainly affects the problems we face right now.” Similarly, what happens now affects the future, and by leveraging the human factor by employing some of the strategies shared at the Summit, the current generation of innovators, researchers, and policy makers have important tools as they get to work shaping  a more water-secure future.

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