Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

Water World

Modest additions to water infrastructure are best.
October 24, 2017
Christine Daniloff | MIT News Office

Safe water is usually close at hand in the developed world. But global warming, drought, and population growth threaten that easy access.

Does this potentially massive long-term problem require a massive long-term infrastructure solution? Not necessarily. An MIT research team has concluded that incremental additions to water infrastructure often make more sense than bigger facilities that may be needed only intermittently.

The study examines Melbourne, Australia, where a drought from 1997 to 2009 led to construction of a $5 billion desalination plant. Approved in 2007, the plant opened in 2012—after the drought had ended—and has barely been used. Instead, the researchers suggest, smaller, modular desalination plants could have met Melbourne’s needs at a lower price.

“If you build too much infrastructure, you’re building hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in assets you might not need,” says doctoral student Sarah Fletcher, SM ’12. She is lead author of the team’s paper, published in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, which flows from the work of research scientist Afreen Siddiqi ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’06.

The MIT team ran 100,000 30-year water-supply simulations and evaluated a half-dozen infrastructure options for each scenario. They found that shortages tend to be acute but relatively infrequent: 80 percent of all years in the simulations had none at all.

Factoring in costs, doing nothing proved the best option in half the cases—and the worst nearly a third of the time. Meanwhile, building a plant half the size of Melbourne’s was a top-three option 90 percent of the time and never the worst option.

So, as Siddiqi puts it, “building on a smaller scale, but planning big” may be the optimal approach.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.