Water-Conserving Design

Despite being the site of the world’s largest contiguous network of river-fed irrigation canals, Pakistan’s Indus River Basin is increasingly tapped by diesel- and electric-powered pumps to sustain its agriculture, intensifying an already looming energy shortfall in Pakistan. What began as an agriculture and food problem has become an energy problem—and an environmental one.

For the past several years, James Wescoat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture and co-director of the Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, has collaborated on this nexus of water, food, and energy with Afreen Siddiqi ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’06, a research scientist in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. With funding from the MIT Energy Initiative as well as the Tata Center for Technology, they are creating a framework for quantifying energy usage associated with water and food production, as well as evaluating alternative solutions and environmental impact.

Wescoat has spent most of his career engaged with the waterworks of South Asia (largely the 17th-century Mughal gardens and cities of India and Pakistan), concurrently with his research on water planning and policy. His position at the convergence of landscape architecture, systems analysis, public policy, and history makes him a pivotal figure in the region’s examination of its water resources. That expertise extends back to river basins of the US as well, from the Colorado to the Great Lakes and Lower Mississippi Delta in projects and studies that link environmental planning, poverty reduction, and water politics.

“The field of work that I’m pursuing is what I like to call water-conserving design,” Wescoat explains. “It draws together the conservation of water infrastructure with the conservation of water resources, of human livelihoods that depend on water, and the cultural meanings associated with water. I’m really trying to develop an integrated approach to the conservation alternatives that are available to societies in both the US and in South Asia.”