Tata Center for Technology and Design

Envisioning the future of water for 900 million people

Research from an MIT Tata Center team led by Professor James Wescoat is making strategic planning of India's rural water systems possible for the first time.
Ben Miller

When James Wescoat made his first research trip to India more than 40 years ago, it was to study the impressive waterworks of the bygone Mughal Empire — an experience that fueled his fascination with the utility, cultural significance, and beauty of water. But he also saw firsthand how a poor modern-day water infrastructure was hindering the nation’s progress.

“Several decades ago, water and sanitation were the leading cause of death for children under five years old in India, and a major deficiency in village quality of life,” Wescoat says. “It was especially onerous for women, because it meant very long journeys to fetch water.”

Now, as the Aga Khan Professor of Architecture at MIT, Wescoat is leading a team of researchers who — supported by the Tata Center for Technology and Design — are taking a multidisciplinary approach to improving the sustainability and drought resilience of India’s water systems.

“The lesson from history is that there’s a lot of water, and if it’s conserved well, through careful management, drinking water should not be a problem,” Wescoat says. “But there are questions about the sustainability of systems and institutional support. Those are some of the key sources of concern today.”

The team is focusing their efforts on rural areas, where 70 percent of India’s population resides, and on fast-growing peri-urban zones — the transitional areas outside of large cities where the urban and rural meet. Their goal is nothing less than achieving sustainable water coverage for the 900 million residents of these areas.

Unearthing buried data

At the outset, Wescoat and his team knew that they wanted to support the government in making sound policy decisions, but they weren’t sure how; after all, managing water delivery across India’s widely variable social, political, and geographical terrain is a monumentally complex task.

Marianna Novellino SM ’15, formerly a Tata Fellow and now a research affiliate with Wescoat’s group, wanted to combat “slipback” — a phenomenon in which infrastructure or planning projects are created, but not maintained. But to do this effectively, she needed fine-grained data, which is in short supply in most countries.

It was only after several trips to India that Novellino found what she was looking for: the Integrated Management Information System (IMIS), a database that has been collecting information on water infrastructure nationwide since 2009. The IMIS turned out be a treasure trove of data, but it was not being used as such.

“The IMIS is perceived [by officials] as a requirement to get funding from the central government, but not as a source of data for their use and benefit,” she says. “My focus is on sustainability, so I said, ‘How can I leverage this, combined with a sustainability framework, to assess the performance of water supply systems in India?’”

In her thesis, Novellino details a platform for analyzing and visualizing rural water supply in India, giving policymakers a way to understand their current systems and plan improvements. The next step is simple but ambitious.

“I want to create a software tool that would enable the national goal of sustainable water supply for all,” she says. “The impact of this [in the rural sector] is 900 million people. It’s a simple tool, but it’s a lot of data that we can’t digest without help. It’s a technology that will enable better policy.”

Wescoat and Novellino have entered a formal partnership with the World Bank and the state of Maharashtra, where the competing water-use demands of agriculture and domestic consumption are a hot-button issue, and they plan to begin testing, implementing, and rolling out their data visualization tool in the winter and spring of 2016.

“The government has been very receptive,” Novellino says. Wescoat agrees, saying, “We’ve never had this kind of collaboration. It’s a high level of cooperation.”

In addition to the government of India, and the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, Wescoat’s team has worked with Aga Khan Planning and Building Services, the Tata Trusts, and the National Informatics Center, which owns the IMIS.

For the researchers, a deep understanding of Indian culture and society is crucial to their goals of a sustainable water supply for all.

“In India, it’s about how you adapt institutional and social behaviors to make solutions scalable and available,” Novellino says. “If you understand the institutions, you allow other technologies to come in and help. That’s where we see the value of our group.”

Wescoat is excited to see where these research paths take them. “This domain is unbelievably rich in its diversity and challenges,” he says.