Disaster-Proofing the Tap
This spring, a water main in greater Boston suffered a catastrophic rupture affecting 2 million people and 700,000 households. But Sarah Slaughter, a senior lecturer of technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategic management at the MIT Sloan School was not surprised.
“The rupture has brought the vulnerability and fragility of our current water delivery system to everyone’s attention. I’m hopeful that institutions like hospitals and schools will find ways to implement new systems that provide potable water even during emergencies, so they can continue to be a place of refuge for the communities.”
Self-described as “MIT cubed,” Slaughter did her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral work at the Institute. Her academic breadth — Slaughter holds degrees in civil engineering, anthropology, management, and technology and policy studies — has been a boon in her role as head of Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative, which advances management-based solutions to energy and environmental challenges. Now she’s turning her attention to innovations that will help safeguard and modernize our critical water infrastructure.
“The way we manage water now, it’s equivalent to renting the entire Hancock Building for a two-person start-up company,” Slaughter says. “It’s a burden to manage the excess capacity.” Traditionally, communities pool their water resources and sewage needs into large reservoirs and treatment centers, making entire regions more vulnerable to risk should natural disasters, contamination, leaks, or a terror attack arise. In the Greater Boston area, over thirty communities are dependent on the Quabbin reservoir — a vast, aging, and inefficient structure built to accommodate a future need that may take decades to realize.
Instead, the professor imagines a network of small, modular water delivery and treatment centers, “which is much smarter than putting all of your eggs in one basket.” Designed to supplement and work alongside existing infrastructure, the centers give governments the flexibility to phase out older systems over time. Moreover, this approach allows a community to deliver clean water and sewage treatment without large capital investments. Slaughter adds, “It’s ideal for resource-strapped developing countries, and a great business model, too. You can train people to operate, maintain, repair and upgrade the units. So it’s not only providing people with clean water and sanitation, but increasing the technical capacity of the individual communities as well.”
Slaughter observes that the centers would have the added benefit of preventing the spread of water-borne diseases. “Many people in the developing world get their water from water trucks. They don’t know if it’s been treated or not. And because the water is stored in household containers, they’ll dip into them and contaminate them. So water health is a big part of the modular approach as well.”
This is just one of the emerging opportunities that’s captured Slaughter’s attention, who is also hard at work on a Department of Energy proposal to start an MIT-led project to improve energy efficiency for buildings and related systems, including water, to restart the regional economy. But since there will be a lot of competition, Slaughter says, “I can’t go into too much detail right now, but it’s amazing to see how the MIT community is galvanizing around the topic. At MIT, the harder you make the problem, the more excited people get about solving it. I just love that.”