2020 MIT Water Summit brings international audiences together to discuss resilience

Earlier this semester, the MIT student group The Water Club gathered to discuss topics for their eighth annual MIT Water Summit. Given the dramatic challenges of 2020, the group knew this year’s decision was particularly weighty. Commenting on the process, Laura Chen, a junior in chemical engineering and director of the 2020 Water Summit, recalled, “in light of the effects of Covid-19 across the world, as well as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., we thought a lot about how we might [through the Water Summit] create a better picture of our future, on the scale of system-wide challenges.” To that end, the student organizers sought a theme and group of presenters that could focus the discussion on structural change, rather than point-source solutions.

The Water Summit, a three-day student-run conference that gathers college students, professors, researchers, and industry professionals to discuss the newest ideas and innovations in the world’s water resources and our use of them, attracted 480 people from all over the world. The international nature of both audience and presenters showcased the benefits that can come from the pivot to virtual space, its own demonstration of resilience. 

Resilience has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, cropping up in discussions of everything from mental health, to business development, to climate change response, and more. Given the ubiquity of the term — especially in 2020, where the pandemic has forced rapid changes to everyday practices around the world — using it as a frame to question systemic challenges and structural solutions in the water sector was a potent one. In the words of opening speaker Rebecca Farnum, community outreach advocate at Syracuse University London: “Who are we expecting to be resilient? What is forcing certain communities to be resilient? As we re-imagine resilience, can our policies and governments be, so our people and ecosystems don’t have to be?”

Water systems resilience: Different definitions, similar goals

Farnum’s opening talk framed the complexities inherent to resilience when it comes to water. “Resilience is different for everyone,” she explained, and all depends on which water sector stakeholder you are taking to. The differences stem from the different uses each individual or community has for water. For a farmer, water is an expense. For an activist, it is a right. However, this does not mean that any one perspective should be dominant over another. Each holds an important piece of the puzzle of water resilience that, if understood together, can guide innovation and decision-making that can improve water sustainability around the world and build toward a water-secure future for all.

Using resilience as a motivator for water sector innovation is an exciting mission for many researchers and entrepreneurs. However, Farnum noted that resilience can be a burden as well, especially to those who have no choice but to exercise it daily. In conversations with young people living in water-insecure areas, she has heard these frustrations time and again. The problem is that it’s often the individual that is required to be continuously resilient to challenges of water insecurity, while the structures exacerbating these challenges rarely — or slowly — change. Farnum summed up this call for structural change this way: “Placing the burden of resiliency on people is problematic. Can we re-imagine a world where systems bear this burden, rather than people?”

In fact, the challenges of water insecurity — and need for widespread resilience — are increasing globally, as the world’s poorest people bear the brunt of its effects. About 2.2 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water. The spread of Covid-19 revealed these significant gaps in clean water access and sanitation, and how unprepared many communities were to respond to emergency scenarios like this one. On top of this, climate change is further depleting water sources while scaling up natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts, which have reached record levels of destruction in 2020. From record-breaking wildfires in the United States and Australia, to cyclones in India that caused billions of dollars in damage, to devastating floods in Vietnam and Cambodia, disaster scenarios like these are increasing in frequency and power. It is therefore more important than ever to not only create resilient communities that can absorb and recover from these challenges, but also find ways to mitigate them in the first place.

Place-based approaches to water planning

While water issues are present across the world, they differ from country to country and from community to community. Uma Lele, president-elect of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, spoke to this challenge, with a particular focus on China and India. Population growth, income growth, and industrialization have increased both countries’ need for high quality water. Yet, while China and India face similar water challenges, they have taken very different approaches. When it comes to the stability of water and water quality, Lele stated that “it is important to consider what a country’s policies are and how they affect all populations.” China has a centralized governmental approach to water issues, while India delegates more power to the states. Therefore, China’s centralized nature makes it easier to pursue water usage policies such as caps and pricing, whereas it is more difficult to implement these policies successfully in India, where states that prioritize farmer productivity may resist.

Throughout the summit, a common theme was how everyone, regardless of geography, is vulnerable to water challenges. In a panel on water and energy, Newsha Ajami, director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, shared that by 2050, 80 percent of the world population will be living in urban areas. Given this, embedding sustainable water management practices in urban design right now is imperative to our ability to move toward a water-secure future. “Sixty percent of these cities haven’t even been built yet,” she noted, which provides the opportunity for urban planners to foreground water sustainability from the ground up.

Paula Kehoe, director of water resources with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, also spoke to what cities can do right now. In a panel discussion on decentralized water systems, she shared how San Francisco is using “greywater” — wastewater generated in households or office buildings from streams without fecal contamination — for non-potable applications in order to conserve water in public buildings. What began as a controversial water-saving policy borne out of a moment of water scarcity in 2012 is now a mandatory ongoing city water conservation strategy.

People-focused approaches to water solutions

When making decisions about water issues, all stakeholders should be at the table. These stakeholders include industry, government, researchers, and especially people on the ground that are directly affected by water challenges. In one example, Pamela Silva Díaz ’12, an independent engineering consultant who works with MIT D-Lab, spoke to how disaster mitigation needs to adapt to all populations. This means taking into account language, literacy levels, income levels, and gender. Connecting with many different communities and forming relationships on the ground early and in an ongoing way can alleviate inequities and other challenges down the line.

In fact, the importance of community engagement in water solutions to improve water systems resilience was a common thread throughout the summit. One method discussed in a panel on data-driven decision-making for the water sector was citizen science. This practice helps water utilities and other entities with their data collection but, more importantly, it keeps the public engaged in water challenges and their long-term solutions. Luis Montestruque, vice president of digital solutions for Xylem, explained that a critical role for citizen science is to allow people to participate in monitoring contamination in areas where they live and work.

Understanding levels of contamination and its impact is vital to empowering a community to maintain water quality through generations. It additionally helps create datasets for populations that are often underrepresented by research, such as members of poor or rural communities. Charlene Ren SM ’16, SM ’17, founder of the startup MyH2O, echoed these sentiments. She has found, through the on-the-ground work of MyH2O in China, that people have a tendency to trust the water sources they have used their entire life, even if they are contaminated. MyH2O’s citizen science efforts help people understand what is actually in their water and turns them from users to advocates. 

Water inequalities extend to the United States, and these domestic challenges were discussed by Emma Robbins, director of the Navajo Water Project and one of the Water Summit’s keynote presenters. She shared a startling statistic: 2 million Americans, including many Indigenous peoples in Native nations across the U.S., do not have piped water in their homes. On top of this, for the Navajo nation in particular, much of the groundwater is contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic and uranium, as well as residual contaminants from mines on their land that have not been properly cleaned up and closed. Given this lack of clean water access, Covid-19 hit Navajo communities particularly hard, a challenge to which the Navajo Water Project has been responding since March 2020. 

The Navajo Water Project, an Indigenous-led and Indigenous-operated organization, uses first-hand experience as well as close collaboration with community organizations and Navajo nation leaders to determine effective water infrastructure solutions. In the beginning of the pandemic, due to the urgency of the situation, the Navajo Water Project distributed bottled water to residents in need. They drew heavily on their connections with community organizations and tribal leaders to ensure their messaging about Covid-safe practices. The water itself reached even the most remote households. However, larger and longer-term solutions were needed, and the Navajo Water Project developed, in close consultation with their contacts across the Navajo nation, modular weather-resilient water tanks and innovations for in-home water systems. Given how resource-intensive installing home water systems is, designing solutions with community members’ ongoing input continues to be essential to ensure that they responded to the unique nature of both the site and the users’ everyday needs at the outset.   

A closing lesson: Continue to center equity and community input in water innovation

“This has been hands-down the best Water Summit ever,” said MIT D-Lab lecturer Susan Murcott in her closing remarks for the event. A participant of all eight summits, she pointed out with delight that for the first time, equity, community engagement, sustainability, and resilience were central themes, as opposed to taking a back seat to technology-heavy discussions. She and many presenters throughout the summit reminded participants of the importance of keeping these concepts at the center, even after the summit ended. The reason is clear, especially for MIT students and others involved in building next-generation water policies and technologies: Centering these themes can ultimately help with the long-term sustainability of their water sector innovations.

As Emma Robbins reminded the audience: “It’s important to realize that oftentimes there might be a different solution than you have in mind.” Why is it so important to put time and energy into learning about the communities one seeks to help? They are the ones that will be using whatever technology or practice is introduced, long after these decisions are made.