John Briscoe offers bold, unorthodox ideas for managing scarce water

John Briscoe; photograph Tony Rinaldo

[Fall 2009]

What do people in developing nations understand about water that people in wealthy nations do not?

“They understand the absence of it,” says John Briscoe, newly appointed Professor of the Practice of Environmental Health at HSPH.  If it doesn’t rain, women who haul water for their families must walk vast distances to fetch it. Without rain, the lights go out in hydropowered locales. Lack of sanitary facilities in schools deters girls from an education. Indian farmers unable to drill into dwindling aquifers even commit suicide. “Water is not taken for granted,” Briscoe says. “People live with insecurity at every turn.”

That insecurity has preoccupied him for nearly four decades—first in his native South Africa, then in a remote village in Bangladesh and in newly independent Mozambique, then as a teacher at the University of North Carolina and as a policymaker and practitioner at the World Bank, and now at Harvard (where he holds a joint appointment with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as the Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering). Briscoe has studied water from every conceivable angle: how it’s captured, contaminated, diverted, dammed, piped, poeticized, regulated, ritualized, squandered, sanitized, fished, and fought over.

Over a long career focused on the developing world, he has taken stands that are politically unfashionable. Pointing out, for example, that the United States and Europe have developed 80 percent of their hydropower potential, but Africa only 2 percent, he has strongly defended the need for large dams in poor countries. And while elected leaders have praised his support for these investments, critics in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the West counter that such projects wreak both environmental and human devastation. Despite such sharp disagreements, Briscoe has gained the reputation of being one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on water management.

“To a lot of economists, he’s Mr. Water: the most far-sighted, thoughtful, deeply thinking person in the field,” says former HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom, who brought Briscoe to the School from the World Bank in Brazil this past January. “You can make energy, though it may not always be economical. But you can’t make water—you either have water or you don’t. Bringing someone here who is not only knowledgeable theoretically, but also about managing water resources, was the best bargain I could imagine.”


Briscoe’s conversation dashes in one direction, then another—a cascade of words, befitting his specialty. He went to school in Kimberley, South Africa, a diamond-mining city in the arid center of the country. Drought was a perpetual worry.

After earning his doctorate in environmental engineering at Harvard, Briscoe in 1976 found himself at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Fatepur, Bangladesh, doing field work in water demand, the health impact of water use on cholera, and the political economy of rural energy. He was, by his own description, a “self-righteous young socialist-ecologist,” radicalized by having grown up under apartheid.

Briscoe’s experience in Fatepur—a village perched on an island where the braided branches of the world’s second-largest river system merge-altered his life course. Malnutrition and disease were rife. Life expectancy was less than 50 years. Briscoe, trained as an engineer, had been inexplicably hired as an epidemiologist.

Twenty-one years after Briscoe’s first stay in Fatepur, he returned to the village. The flood control and irrigation infrastructure that he had emphatically opposed in the late 1970s-on the grounds that it would harm poor people and the environment, and fell short of true revolutionary change-was a reality. Far from being harmed, poor residents were better off in every way. The steady water supply had spurred a growing market for agricultural labor, which in turn lifted people out of destitution. The better-off villages could now buy hand pumps for drinking water and eat more nutritious food and install latrines.  Women’s life expectancy had increased by two decades in just 20 years.

“They got three crops a year instead of one,” says Briscoe. “They became better off-and lo and behold, they didn’t die so often.” The dramatic progress vividly confirmed the view he had acquired after decades on development issues, namely that the basics—economic growth, infrastructure, and agriculture, with water critical to all—are incalculably important to people who are poor.

In 1988, Briscoe joined the World Bank. By 1996, he had risen to senior water advisor, responsible for overseeing a multibillion-dollar portfolio of water resources, irrigation, hydropower, sanitation, and environmental projects. Ironically, his appointment came at a time when the Bank had been scaling back large infrastructure investments. A strong proponent of such projects in poor nations, Briscoe cut a controversial but successful path, culminating in what he terms “the best job in the Bank”: country director for Brazil.  “There were many things I did not agree with in the Bank. But it was an environment in which you could argue for change, and sometimes achieve it. For me to be at that table with our partners in developing countries, rather than writing an article for a journal, was a tremendous privilege.”

What lured Briscoe to Harvard was the chance to translate his frontline experience into useful interdisciplinary research and training. He plans to forge partnerships with countries where he has strong professional and personal ties-starting with Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil, and Australia.

He will also open a “waterspace” in which faculty and students will bring various tools to the water security challenge. As he sees it, the expertise will flow in both directions—with politicians and policymakers from abroad teaching Harvard faculty about the political realities of change, and Harvard and its partner researchers boring down into knotty research questions.

The partnerships will focus on a handful of themes. One is “context”—the history, anthropology and religion of a region—and how it shapes the way governments deal with water. India’s Ganges River, for example–repulsively polluted, despite its sacred status-has recently been targeted for clean-up by holy men in the pilgrimage site of Varanasi. “In a country where Ganga is a sacred river,” Briscoe says, “it turns out to be a very important mobilizing force.”

A second avenue of research will ask about external threats to a nation’s water supplies. Brazil’s leaders, for example, must understand how deforestation in the Amazon rainforest will alter the rains in the plains, which may in turn undercut farming and threaten the nation’s hydropower capacity.  Pakistan’s leaders must anticipate what will happen when Himalayan glaciers recede and potentially disappear, feeding less water to the Indus River, the nation’s lifeline.

A third avenue will explore how to mitigate risk.  It will include biologists (to propagate new varieties of crops more resistant to water stress), financiers (to craft better crop and rainfall insurance mechanisms), institutionalists (to study how institutions influence how water is shared and utilities regulated), and public health specialists (to protect populations as environmental conditions change).

A fourth avenue will look at how water shortages will affect public health, the economy, the environment, and migration.

Briscoe foresees “general principles” arising from these research collaborations-widely applicable ideas such as how nations can provide incentives for people, farmers, and industry to use water more efficiently, or which crops work best in differing water conditions.  The partnerships could also generate knowledge to help resolve international water issues-such as the threatened 1960 water-sharing treaty between India and Pakistan, which currently divides up between the two nations exclusive use of the western and eastern waters in the Indus system of rivers. “Harvard has enormous brand recognition in those countries,” he says. “We could act as a neutral party, bringing ideas to the table, helping stimulate debate.”


To all these activities, Briscoe carries the conviction that management and infrastructure are equally essential. “Once you have something, you don’t value it,” he laments. “Nobody in the United States likes a dam, for example. But every one of us has 6,000 cubic meters of water in storage because of dams. People here are worried that infrastructure in developing nations will have a negative impact on the environment. But try a blackout for a day. Try a couple weeks of blackout, and then see how you think about major power infrastructure.”

He concedes that apprehensions about environmental and social effects of dams “are valid and have to be addressed, mainly because affected people should be the first beneficiaries of any dam.” But there is a “profound moral hazard,” he adds, when rich countries dictate to developing nations what services they can and cannot have. The U.S. and Europe “are looking to their own imagined idea of how they would have developed if they hadn’t developed the way they had developed, but with the models that they now have. So California should never have had dams? It’s nonsense. And it’s saying to other countries: ‘We’re going to deny you exactly what we used to develop.’ That’s deeply resented and quite intellectually suspect.”

Early this year, Briscoe discussed water issues with administrators at a large philanthropic foundation: “They said, ‘Two billion people don’t have sanitation. This is a failure of the sanitation sector.’ I said, ‘Not really. To me, it’s a failure of economic prosperity. Because those two billion people also don’t have energy, transport, jobs, education. I mean, they’re poor. We have to address their problems of poverty and their demands and priorities—not impose what we think they should and should not have.”

Richard Cash, Senior Lecturer on International Health at HSPH, and a colleague of Briscoe’s back in Bangladesh in the 1970s, sees Briscoe fitting in well at the School and Harvard, although his views at times may seem impolitic. “At a university, we have the luxury of not having to solve problems, but rather to analyze them,” says Cash. “John comes out of the world of trying to make something work. That involves not just engineering, but anthropology and economics and political science. Yes, he’s probably going to shake things up. Good. My guess is that, in the process of doing it, he will also have to defend his own positions.”

Briscoe relishes the intellectual give-and-take. Quoting the Harvard historian David Blackbourn’s recent book on land and water in Germany, he noted, “In water, any solutions are always provisional. There is no point at which the United States or Pakistan or any country is going to have definitively solved its water problems.”

With that long view, Briscoe remains both an optimist and a realist. “In some places, the glass is almost full. In other places, it’s five minutes to midnight. Or five minutes past.”

Madeline Drexler is a visiting scientist at HSPH and guest editor of this issue of the Harvard Public Health Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and many national publications. She is the author of  Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections.