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In Conversation with the Head of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An elderly Afghan man collects water from a pool at a construction site in Kabul on May 31, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/Wakil Kohsar)

An elderly Afghan man collects water from a pool at a construction site in Kabul on May 31, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/Wakil Kohsar)

An elderly Afghan man collects water from a pool at a construction site in Kabul on May 31, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/Wakil Kohsar)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Food and water security has become a major concern over the last fifty years in both developed and developing countries. As global population more than doubled, so did agricultural production—the industry that uses almost 70 percent of the fresh water consumed by humans. But many people around the world remain malnourished despite the rapid growth in food production, with lack of access to clean water compounding the problem.

Looking to study ways to resolve these issues, Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel has endowed the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), named after his late father. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it aims to solve urgent challenges in world food and water security. The laboratory is scheduled to commence its operations this coming September.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with John Lienhard, the newly appointed director of J-WAFS, about the laboratory’s goals and MIT’s partnerships in the Gulf.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Can you talk to us in detail about the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab?

John Lienhard: We are looking at changes that are confronting the world in view of population growth and climate change, and in view of an increasingly urban world. We are interested in particular in how these challenges will affect the supplies of water and food in diverse societies.

In terms of numbers, if you look at the renewable supply of fresh water, which comes from precipitation over land (rainfalls, snowfall) and the amount of rainfall the earth gets in general, it is fixed. It does not grow as population grows. On the other hand, world population is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, from what was just 3 billion when I was born, around 1960. That is to say, there are three times as many people drinking from the same supply of renewable water. This water scarcity phenomenon is happening all over the world, in poor and rich societies alike. Every continent has regions of water scarcity, as population grows and lifestyle develops to be more resource intensive. Everyone is facing challenges. The challenges are more substantial in poorer societies, or in societies that have not developed the infrastructure to distribute and purify water.

One other major development is that the world is becoming more and more urban. More and more people in the world today live in cities. By 2050, the UN estimates that 86 percent of people in the developed world and 64 percent of the developing world will live in cities. The challenges of distributing water in cities are different than in rural settings, due to high density, infrastructure, distribution, so forth.

The other very important factor is the projected influence of global climate change. The planet is warming, rainfall patterns are changing and regions of agricultural activity are estimated to shift towards higher latitudes, away from the equator. All of this poses a threat to current patterns of agricultural production. It is also projected that the world will witness more extreme weather—more big storms , droughts and so on—occurring as the climate shifts. That affects the growing cycle for crops. If you have a drought in a critical part of the planting cycle, it might wipe out the crop. If that happens in a rich society—the US for example—,it can buy grains from a different place, whereas if the same happens to a subsistence farmer in Africa, he may starve. The threats of these kinds of extreme weather events and shifting patterns of productivity are greater for people in the developing world.

Q: Is there an intention to focus more on the developing world? If so, are you thinking of establishing regional research stations?

There are a number of challenges around these countries. The need for technologies that inexpensively and efficiently purify rural water, for example, is greater in these countries. However, today, it is difficult to do that in an affordable way in these societies. Techniques of water purification exist, but not in ways that are affordable and simple enough that they can be adopted in these societies.

Concerning food security, an important question is whether we can identify strains of rice that are more resilient to these types of changing climates so that poor societies are able to grow crops productively in the face of rising population and changing climate.

Another question is related to the productivity of farms. In developed societies, huge achievements have been made in terms of raising productivity of cropland. These techniques have not been necessarily extended to the developing world.

That said, there is another side to the story. The UN has recently published a few studies on the topic that highlight the fact that a very large fraction of the food production is wasted. In the developing world, that usually is because food spoils before it gets to the consumer. There are problems in the supply chain moving food around in a way that preserves it while it is being shipped. Once it reaches the household it is usually eaten, so no problem there, while in the developed world, it is almost inversed. There is less waste on the way to the table, and a lot more waste at end use. Some estimates say that up to 50 percent of food is wasted rather than consumed. This is to say that we already produce food to feed many more people than there are on earth.

Q: These are substantial challenges. How are you planning on reconciling science, engineering, urban planning and policy to reach the goals of the initiative?

It is a big task indeed. Our hope is to proceed regionally and look for partners in particular regions of the world and to analyze—starting with the basic science—what are the likely climate change effects, what is the current water budget in particular areas, how it is being distributed and used. These assessments will allow us to identify particular technologies which might meet particular needs. The needs vary according to specific regions. In particular parts of the world, the need is for clean water, finding ways to reduce waste, perhaps to reclaim waste water and using it for irrigation, perhaps the challenge is to find energy efficient means of desalinating sea water to produce drinking water. The question can also be how to address the mix of crops being grown and imported to a particular region.

Having these kinds of scientific foundations and technological assessments will allow us to identify the critical needs for particular areas, whether it is research and technology, changing management process, the role of the government in promoting or discouraging certain types of practices. It will also allow us to make recommendations in this framework.

Q: How did the idea of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab come about?

In MIT, we have, for a number of years, been discussing topics related to the environment and sustainability. I worked with Professor Maria Zuber at MIT to survey all our activities in water, food, climate, urban planning and environmentally benign design. We identified some areas in which our capabilities were well aligned with very important problems in water and food production. We did this study and then at some point, I met with representatives of Mr. Jameel who were interested in activities at MIT. I told them about the water and food effort, and Mr. Jameel was inspired and decided to support this activity with a major gift. Mr. Jameel has the approach that big problems require bold solutions. His history of philanthropy is a reflection of that as he has worked in various places to try and put in place large-scale solutions to significant challenges.

Q: Can you tell us more about Mr. Jameel’s involvement with MIT?

Mr. Jameel received his undergraduate degree in civil engineering [from MIT] in 1978, and has remained a very strong supporter of the institute since then. He funded the Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in 2003, which was very effectively given to MIT and created, and is, what I regard as a very successful activity. He has also supported some work of other programs in the institute. The J-WAFS is another program that he is interested to move forward.

Q: How will J-WAFS impact scientific cooperation between MIT research departments and those in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general? Do you, or members of the board, plan to inaugurate a Middle East center or department?

MIT’s connections with the Gulf region are deep and long-standing. MIT has for many years had active collaborations with Saudi Arabian universities. In particular, for the past 8 years, I have been directing the collaboration with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran. I, as well as 20 of my MIT colleagues, have visited Dhahran repeatedly as part of this program. The KFUPM cooperation has been extremely successful, and it resulted in many joint publications, and numerous patented ideas that spun off companies. We also have connections in MIT to the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Additionally, we have a very large program with Saudi Aramco.

As for the broader Gulf region, MIT has been intimately involved in the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. We have a longstanding program with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, which has sponsored work on water and the environment and other topics. We also have a partnership with the Qatar Foundation.

I certainly hope that part of this effort will look at the specific challenges facing the Gulf states around water and food security. We have reached out to several of our partners there as the new lab has been founded and we are expecting to see that grow.

Q: Can you tell us more about the broader MIT initiative on the environment, which is related to the Jameel gift?

Indeed. MIT has announced a new initiative on the environment which will be headed by Professor Susan Solomon, who co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The initiative will look very closely at issues like changing climate. The Jameel lab will be very interested in using ideas from the environment initiative and its scientific grounding to better understand how to provide solutions for the challenges of water and food supply. These two activities are coupled and complimentary. The environment initiative will directly support the work of the Jameel lab. The work of the Jameel lab will then directly implement ideas for solving the world’s problems.

Q: Are there any plans to start up a MIT Middle East alumni network, similar to the Harvard Arab Alumni Association?

MIT has alumni networks in many countries, including the Middle East. We have a very active alumni chapter in Saudi Arabia, for example, called the MIT Club of Saudi Arabia, headed by Mohammed Bakr.

We are definitely aiming to engage our alumni in the region in our initiatives.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important achievements of the MIT?

MIT has been an engine of innovation in the world. We’ve come up with new technologies, new scientific ideas and we spun them out to have an impact on the surrounding world. Our motto at MIT is Mens et Manus, which means Mind and Hand. This motto is reflected in our achievements. MIT alumni have funded 26,000 companies that are currently operating. Together, these companies employ 3 billion people worldwide and account for 3 trillion dollars in annual revenue. This sums up some of our impact in the technical and economic side.

In regard to the scientific side, we have had many major developments and scientific breakthroughs. In cosmology for example, my colleague Alan Guth’s theory of expanding universe has recently been validated experimentally, which gives us very fundamental understanding of the very nature of the world we live in.