J-WAFS: How smart investment is forging answers to one of mankind’s biggest challenges
by Dr. John H. Lienhard V, PhD, PE – Director, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Over the next 80 years, the world’s population is set to grow at an unprecedented rate. By 2030, the United Nations predicts the global population will reach 8.5 billion – a rise of 1.2 billion in just 15 years from 2015. Forecasts go on to predict a population of 9.7 billion by 2050, and then 11.2 billion by 2100.
These figures are startling, not only because the rate of population growth is so high, but also because much of this growth is expected to take place in the parts of the world that are already struggling to meet the food and water needs of the current population. The inevitable pressures on our planet, including dramatic changes in land use and impact on the environment, only magnify the food and water security challenges, as they are integrally connected.
Securing access to clean water is already one of the biggest challenges faced by governments around the world. Although 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 0.007 [R1] percent of that is readily available as useable freshwater for human consumption. Approximately 20 percent of the world’s current population live in areas where water is scarce. Increasing pressures on already limited resources mean another 500 million people are approaching this situation.
Worryingly, the outlook could get worse. Almost a quarter of the world’s population live in countries that have adequate natural water supplies, but do not have the infrastructure needed to purify and distribute water from rivers and aquifers.
As populations in these countries grow, the combined effects of water scarcity and economic water shortages mean that by 2025, two-thirds of the world could be living under conditions of ‘water stress’.
Alongside this, World Bank data suggest that at least 50 percent more food production will be needed by 2050, at a time when climate change is expected to have significant impacts on water availability and crop yields in the many of the most vulnerable parts of the world.
The current situation is clearly not sustainable.
The Middle East Impact
It is not hard to imagine that the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) region – already the world’s driest region and home to 12 of the world’s most water-scarce countries – could be at the forefront of any impending food and water crisis. Such a scenario would likely result in profound societal and economic impacts.
The World Bank believes that water scarcity could be a major driving force behind migration, possible conflict, and increased food prices over the next 30 years.
The World Bank says that volatile food prices are already “the new normal,” and suggests that high food prices lead to poor families “pulling their children out of school and eating cheaper, less nutritious food. This can have severe life-long effects on the social, physical, and mental well-being of millions of young people.”
Water scarcity, meanwhile, has a direct effect on people’s employment prospects. The United Nations estimates that almost 80 percent of the world’s active workforce is in jobs either heavily water-dependent (such as agriculture, forestry, inland fisheries, food and power generation) or moderately water-dependent (such as construction, recreation, transportation, and manufacturing).
For the Arab region, water scarcity has a particular impact in rural areas, where the depletion of groundwater resources is one factor contributing to falling income levels. Water scarcity is also cited, alongside poor agricultural productivity and low levels of irrigation efficiency, as having a direct effect on job creation and retention in the region’s rural areas.
No Time for Complacency
It is arguable that the urgency and scale of the problems presented by water scarcity and food security are yet to receive full public discussion. Neither issue has entered mainstream discourse in the same way that climate change has, for example. For a significant number of the world’s population, these are underappreciated challenges. However, they are not problems that can be ignored.
Attempts have been made to address the issues. However, the turnaround has been delivered by building energy-intensive desalination plants. So rather than depleting its freshwater reserves, the country is now consuming increased levels of fossil fuels to secure its water supply – which is clearly not a long-term answer.
Addressing these pressing problems requires an altogether different approach; one that combines world-class research and innovation with global investment and implementation.
Investing in Sustainable Future Success
In 2014, Mohammed Jameel established the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) with a major endowment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and in 2015 Community Jameel (the sustainable social enterprise arm of renowned Saudi business Abdul Latif Jameel) made another substantial award to launch the J-WAFS Solutions Program.
J-WAFS harnesses the knowledge and experience of some of the world’s leading experts and innovators to research, develop, and commercialize the next generation of technologies to tackle water supply and food security issues.
J-WAFS is aligned with the rather unique Community Jameel vision to “help communities help themselves” by striving to address societal issues at their source rather than simply alleviate the symptoms. J-WAFS is honored to have the support of Mohammed Jameel, himself a noted MIT alumnus. Thanks to his vision and backing, the lab is able to bring together faculty and students across a range of disciplines including engineering, science, urban planning, management, and social science. The lab provides funding for faculty, postdocs, and students, to advance new technologies to the point where they are positioned to attract venture funding and form the basis for new companies. The lab will also pursue international partnerships.
J-WAFS awards seed grants of US$ 100,000 per year for up to two years for innovative research that has the potential to have significant impact on issues of water and food supply. Seventeen projects are currently active, addressing issues ranging from electro-chemical separation process for contaminated water, to using fungal yeasts to convert waste to food.
With the additional support from Community Jameel in 2015, the reach of J-WAFS was extended further with the launch of the J-WAFS Solutions program. Managed through a partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the J-WAFS Solutions program aims to help MIT faculty and students commercialize breakthrough technologies by transforming promising ideas into innovative products and cutting-edge spinout companies.
J-WAFS Solutions has the mission of moving water and food technologies from labs at MIT into the commercial world, to help improve the productivity, accessibility, and sustainability of the world’s water and food systems.
J-WAFS Solutions provides grants annually to MIT teams through a competitive application process with a focus on technologies that can address major food and water problems. To date, six projects have been funded and one spinout company is already being launched. Developing technologies as varied as inexpensive water filters for rural India and sensors that can detect bacterial contaminants in meat, these projects aim to improve lives across the world.
In the following paragraphs, we take a look at just a small selection of some of these initiatives.
Making Desalination Sustainable
The research projects and developments funded by J-WAFS Solutions are varied, but each aims to contribute to a shared goal.
A team lead by Gang Chen, Carl Richard Soderberg Professor in Power Engineering and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, for example, is aiming to develop an economical technology for desalination on a distributed scale.
As freshwater reserves deplete around the world, several regions are increasingly relying on desalination to boost water supply. However, traditional desalination processes are both costly and energy intensive. Finding a clean, efficient way to conduct desalination is, therefore, of huge environmental and commercial interest, and Gang Chen’s innovation offers significant hope.
The team is developing a special tarpaulin structure (a Wavelength-selective, Insulating-thermally, Solar-powered Still, or ‘WISPS’) that can float on the surface of oceans and lakes to generate freshwater onsite.
Easy to install and made with commercially available materials, the WISPS structure features several characteristics that can harness solar power to fuel the desalination process. By combining WISPS with a simple water condensation system, Chen’s innovation has the potential to deliver clean water production from seawater at low capital costs and competitive production costs.
Reducing the Impact of Air Pollution on Crop Yields
Another vital J-WAFS project is researching the impact of air pollution on crop yields.
The Earth’s growing human population is exerting tremendous pressure on the global food supply. Environmental stresses put food security at even greater risk. Ozone air pollution is known to damage crops, costing the agricultural sector billions of dollars in lost yields. Yet our understanding of the impact of air pollution on food production is incomplete – a situation which this project seeks to address.
By modeling and measuring crop response to air pollutants, the researchers led by Colette Heald, associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, aim to estimate the impact of particulate air pollution on both present-day and 2050, crop yields. The objective is to provide the first comprehensive estimate of the food production risks associated with air pollution. The resulting analysis will provide vital new insights into the food security risks associated with air pollution and the need for local scale crop adaptation.
Safer to Drink, Safer to Eat – Monitoring Food & Water-Borne Contaminants
At the other end of the chain from food production, is, of course, consumption.
Real-time monitoring of contaminants  has become a priority in meeting the need for clean water; similarly, the globalization of our food supply chains has driven the need for new detection platforms that can be employed at the point of consumption. A team led by Michael S. Strano, Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering; and Anthony J. Sinskey, Professor of Microbiology and Health Sciences & Technology conceived and developed an integrated platform that brings together many isolated individual contaminant detection techniques into a single portable point-of-consumption use that can simultaneously test for bacteria, heavy metals, and/or allergens.
Leading the Global Conversation
J-WAFS is not simply a vehicle to provide financial support to research projects, however. The lab is now a global leader in the field of water scarcity and food security, and plays an active role in the academic and commercial community trying to tackle these challenges.
In October 2016, J-WAFS paired with the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance (GCWDA) to host a low-carbon desalination expert workshop. Invited experts from 11 countries came to MIT to discuss the latest advances and best strategies for reducing the energy requirements and carbon footprint of desalination.
Maria Zuber, MIT’s Vice-President for Research, addressed the workshop participants, noting that the work being done at the workshop was “crucially important.” The attendees prepared a report  that was delivered during the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22), held in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November 2016.
J-WAFS’s ability to support water and food research at MIT has recently been further advanced by the recent signing of its first corporate research affiliate agreement. Xylem Inc., a global water technology company with operations in more than 150 countries, will sponsor research projects over the duration of the three-year agreement with J-WAFS. Xylem will also support the MIT Water Club, a student network for water research and innovation actives. By partnering with Xylem, J-WAFS promotes meaningful collaborations around real-world challenges by bringing to MIT a partner with exceptional experience in the water sector.
Building a Better Future
Water scarcity and food security are without doubt two of the biggest challenges humankind has ever faced. Solving them will require investment and collaboration on a global scale. New technologies will need to be developed. Governments will need to collaborate with academia and the private sector with the understanding that the health, prosperity, and economic security of most of the world’s people is at risk if solutions are not found.
Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: “Water is essential to decent jobs and sustainable development. Now is the time to increase investments in protecting and rehabilitating water resources, including drinking water, as well as sanitation.”
His assessment is shared by all at Community Jameel and J-WAFS. We must work together to push forward with innovations and ideas to deliver safe and secure food and clean and renewable water supplies, both in the Middle East and in the wider world.
By doing so, we can help to develop the innovative technologies and partnerships necessary to secure the future of our communities, the sustainability of our cities, and the prosperity of our economies for decades to come.