October 28, 2019

  • 4:43pm

    “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 Yet due to a combination of factors — including outdated infrastructure, inefficient water reuse methods, and a general lack of consumer consciousness about water conservation — water utilities are already struggling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.

  • 4:43pm

    Eric Alm is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and biological engineering at MIT and co-director of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics. He also serves on the board of directors for the non-profit stool bank, OpenBiome, and clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company Finch Therapeutics. His work focuses on understanding and engineering the human microbiome, which he defines as the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses — that live on and inside the human body. The microbiome plays a key role in human health and disease, and Alm and his colleagues strive to translate basic science discoveries rapidly into clinical settings, where they can contribute to better outcomes for patients.

    Q. People are increasingly curious about the state of their microbiome. Could you tell us what a healthy microbiome looks like? Does the number of different types of bacteria species in the microbiome matter for health?

    A. We don’t really know if diversity matters. If you’re very unhealthy, diversity in the microbiome can be very low as a result of an infection — where one particular bacterium takes over the gut and diversity goes down because you’ve been colonized by an infectious agent. But more might not necessarily be better if you’re within the range of diversity that is common among healthy people. So a diet or treatment of the microbiome may lead to increased diversity, but that does not mean it’s better or healthier for you. Diversity is not synonymous with healthy, but we don't have anything else that is synonymous with healthy either. Eating plenty of fiber and maintaining a varied diet is probably the best we can do for now until we have better science and knowledge about what healthy means.

    Q. You cofounded the Global Microbiome Conservancy (GMbC) to identify and preserve gut bacteria from different peoples around the world. Could you tell us more about what you’re doing and why?

    A. The microbiome is very homogenous in populations from industrialized nations that have access to antibiotics, processed foods, and modern sanitation. We have an extensive collection of over 7,000 different microbes that you’d find in folks from North America. But when we looked at the microbial species in people living in less developed nations, we discovered we hadn’t even scratched the surface in terms of microbial diversity, especially among people living "traditional," non-industrialized lifestyles. Those populations have a much greater microbial diversity than we see in North Americans, as well as very different organisms that might have totally different effects on host metabolism. This could be really important for health — not only in developing countries but maybe also for ourselves.

    GMbC’s biobank now houses about 4,000 strains from non-industrialized communities in seven countries, and we’re actively sampling in many other locations. We’ve built a global network of about 70 scientists, anthropologists, and collaborators working with indigenous and other non-industrialized communities in about 35 countries. We get samples and bring them back to MIT where we isolate the bacteria and preserve it for future generations so this biodiversity is not lost. Right now the 7,000 strains that we derived from urban North American individuals includes only five previously unknown genera — but the 4,000 strains from the non-industrialized parts of Africa and the Arctic where we’ve sampled have already yielded 55 unknown genera.

    Q. You’ve also helped people gain access to a procedure that involves transplanting stool from a healthy donor into the colon of a patient. Could you tell us more about the use of fecal transplants?

    A. Clostridium difficile finection is the most common hospital acquired gut infection, and our interest in the disease came after reading a scientific paper that showed fecal transplants work were effective even in cases where standard antibiotic therapy had failed. Patients, however, could not get access to treatment at that time, because doctors didn’t have access to the material for fecal transplants. We knew how to do it in the lab, and in 2013, my graduate student Mark Smith started a non-profit stool bank called OpenBiome, and we treated our first patient later that year. We’ve treated about 40,000 people so far. We’re partnering with over 1,000 hospital networks across the U.S. to make sure everyone has safe access to this medical procedure.

    The FDA does not currently allow large-scale treatment for indications other than C. diff. but clinical studies into other applications in various diseases exist. At the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics at MIT, for instance, we’re involved in clinical studies that involve fecal transplants for patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. We look at various strains of bacteria and the immune response and even the metabolites in the blood to see how that changes in response to a fecal transplant. We’re also studying the effects of diet on the microbiome. For example, we know that microbes can metabolize fiber to short chain fatty acids like butyrate, which seems important in IBD. One of the interesting things we’ve found is that depending on the microbiome, different people require different fibers to make butyrate. Some individuals will take inulin and convert it into butyrate but not pectin and vice versa. We are working toward things like personalized fiber supplements for people with IBD.

  • 4:43pm

    Being a research student requires hours behind a desk. For Concrete Sustainability Hub researcher Thomas Petersen though, it also requires hours of running, and perhaps, even a marathon or two.

    “I love running,” Petersen says. “I find that it helps my productivity.”

    Petersen has made running a regular part of his research routine. He says that stepping away from his desk and jogging along the adjacent Charles River, he finds he can think about problems “in a different way.”

    “Whenever you’re working on a computer or with a paper in front of you, you tend to look at the details,” he explains. “Whereas, if you step back and do something that detaches you from the specifics of the equations you can think about the general processes more.”

    Running is a lifestyle for Petersen. He ran as a collegiate athlete at Arizona State University and at North Carolina State University. Since then, he has also completed several marathons, including the New York Marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, and the Boston Marathon — which he has run three times.

    And when Petersen isn’t running on pavement, he’s studying it. His work revolves around the material science of concrete and asphalt and, in particular, how they degrade due to their chemical composition or various stresses like temperature change.

    In a climate like that of Boston, temperature changes can generate considerable stresses inside pavements. “Something I’ve been studying for much of my PhD is the mechanics of how internal loads develop due to various physical properties,” he says.

    “Here in Boston, temperature cycles will have a significant impact. Pavements are laid down on a substrate, and if they expand or contract on the substrate and, the substrate resists that expansion or contraction, cracks can occur. I often see them when I run, actually,” he says. As a result, he says, an ideal subgrade should be stiff and well bonded to the pavement so that loads are effectively transferred.

    Yet, sometimes cracks can be beneficial. “Often we try to release energy in the pavement by cutting joints,” says Petersen, “and in that case, it’s not effective to have a rigid connection because you are trying to create cracks that relieve the stresses.” This is why the average sidewalk has lines cut through it, Petersen explains. The lines direct the cracks away from the surface of the sidewalk and discourage it from storing mechanical stress.   

    Pavement durability also depends on not just how the concrete is set, but also on the textures and composition of the materials. Some of Petersen’s work looks at the formation of calcium-silicate-hydrates (C-S-H), which occur when water and cement clinker, the chemical source and a catalyst for nucleation, are mixed to create cement. Ultimately, this cement is mixed with filler materials like sand and gravel to form concrete.

    When studying the formation of C-S-H, which occur as nanometer-sized particles, Petersen looks at two key variables — the ability of the particles to diffuse through space and their stability with respect to one another. He has found that when C-S-H form an unstable, rapidly-moving phase the final product looks almost like the pattern of cowhide, with large bubbles of clinker mixing with large pockets of air. This kind of heterogeneous pattern tends to generate more stresses, and, in turn, decreases durability.

    However, when C-S-H forms slowly, its pattern becomes more diffuse and homogenous, with small, evenly spaced air pockets and solids. This latter formation is by far the sturdier. Though altering these final patterns is difficult, thanks to his modeling, Petersen has helped to understand how particle mobility and stability determine these final patterns. These findings could provide others with a framework to better engineer nanotextures and, in turn, create a tougher, more resilient material.

    As Petersen nears the completion of his PhD, his work on pavements has absorbed much of his attention. While he continues to run, he has chosen to cut back on marathons for the time being.

    “I’m not so happy about it,” he laughs, “I’m only running three or four times a week.”

    He’s already eying his next marathon, however. Once he finishes his dissertation, he plans to fly to Germany to compete in the Berlin Marathon where he hopes to break 2 hours and 30 minutes. Unlike the past marathons he has run, the Berlin Marathon is relatively flat. “I think if I run Berlin,” he says hopefully, “that that pace might just be possible.”

    The MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) is a team of researchers from several departments across MIT working on concrete and infrastructure science, engineering, and economics. Its research is supported by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation.