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.
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,” he says. “It was especially onerous for women, because it meant very long journeys to fetch water.”
Over the years, he has seen India increase its commitment to providing clean water coverage nationwide, but many challenges remain. Now, as the Aga Khan Professor of Architecture at MIT, Wescoat is leading a team of researchers supported by the Tata Center for Technology and Design, who are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to improving India’s water systems, including strategic planning, sustainability, and drought resilience.
“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.
The goal is nothing less than achieving sustainable water coverage for the 900 million residents of these areas, and thanks to breakthrough thesis research by Marianna Novellino SM ’15, they are closer than ever to monitoring and evaluating water systems at a large scale.