Water: An Urgent Challenge for the 21st Century
“MIT is the greatest problem-solving institution in the world,” says Philip S. Khoury, associate provost and Ford International Professor of History, adding that this is why more than 50 faculty from each of the Institute’s five schools are now tackling one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century — water.
The issues surrounding this precious resource are daunting. Consider that the world needs clean water for drinking, agriculture, energy, food, human health, and more. Consider, too, that the global population is expected to grow by more than two billion people to nine billion in 2050. And about one billion people today lack a reliable water supply, while the situation is expected to grow only worse.
“The problems associated with this crisis will require, at the most fundamental level, new thinking about science and technology,” says Khoury. “But they can’t be completely resolved without addressing social, economic, and political challenges. And at MIT, we have expertise in all of these areas.”
MIT’s culture of exceptional collaboration and cross-disciplinary expertise, “means that we can bring together faculty, students, and staff across these disciplines to solve big, complex problems more easily than probably any institution I know of,” he says.
MIT is well poised to help the world find new solutions to this growing crisis with MIT faculty now conducting water research in areas from desalination — making seawater drinkable by removing the salt — to improving the world’s water distribution systems, to adopting the lessons of ancient cultures to create today’s water-conserving designs.
Many experts believe that in the Middle East, future conflicts will revolve as much around water as they do today around oil, says Khoury, who oversees MIT international initiatives. In one collaboration, for example, MIT and Saudi Arabia launched a program aimed at that country’s primary issues — water and energy. In 2008, together they created the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy at MIT and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. “It is the largest project the Saudis have ever funded at a foreign university,” says Khoury, adding that water is now also a major research topic at several other MIT labs and centers.
“MIT is increasingly a global university, and the challenges we’re talking about are global,” Khoury says. “Who better to tackle them than MIT?”