Science & Tech

‘Water guy’ John Briscoe stays in motion

6 min read

Brought to Harvard with joint appointment at SEAS, HSPH

For someone who deep-sixed his BlackBerry (instant e-mail was taking over his life) and traded the local newspaper for a good book (“What do I need to know about Celtics’ scores?”), John Briscoe ’76 is as worldly a person as you are ever likely to meet.

An expert on water and economic development who most recently served as the World Bank’s senior water adviser and the country director for Brazil, Briscoe has lived in his native South Africa as well as Bangladesh, Mozambique, India, and Brazil.

Briscoe’s cultural comfort has been his guide amid what he calls the “changing economic geography” of the world. However painful and disorienting the current financial crisis, he insists that the true mover and shaker of the planet has never been the markets. It is instead the ebb and flow of the oceans.

“Water touches everything,” Briscoe explains. “It is about religion, culture, history, biology, government. It is everything.”

To make that point, the August 2008 Scientific American cover featured an image of the world as a sponge being wrung dry. The article’s author, Peter Rogers, Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), concluded that if unchecked, “by midcentury as much as three-quarters of the Earth’s population could face scarcities of freshwater.”

Rich or poor, powerful or weak, water’s fate is our fate.

From ‘the Bank’ to ‘the Big H’

Briscoe arrived in January as the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering, a joint appointment between SEAS and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Having loved his roles as the “water guy” and the “Brazil guy” at “the Bank,” he did not make the change lightly.

His decision to come to Cambridge was influenced by the tug of ties both old and new. Two former deans, Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti (of SEAS) and Barry Bloom (of HSPH), urged him to create a water program for the 21st century, highlighting how Harvard was embracing integrative, global-minded science and engineering.

Only half a term in, he has discovered the promised openness and enthusiasm of the research community. Colleagues have filled up his schedule, asking Briscoe to give talks on behalf of the South Asia and Middle East Initiatives, present a lecture during Latin American Week, and meet with a group of visiting Chinese executives.

“Harvard is one of the few places where you can do this — and I feel like an absolute fish in water,” Briscoe says. Moreover, he has not had to give up his international connections. “The big ‘H’ counts for a lot. Everyone wants to partner with Harvard.”

At the same time, Briscoe was pulled in by past history, remembering fondly the achievements of his faculty advisers. From the late 1950s to the early ’60s, Harold A. Thomas Jr. (1913-2002) guided what became the famed Harvard Water Program. In tandem, Roger Revelle (1909-91), the man who inspired Al Gore about an inconvenient truth, focused on the link between population and natural resources as he created the Center for Population Studies at Harvard.

Both thinkers answered a call by John F. Kennedy, who was intent on offering a nonmilitary incentive to then-Pakistani President Muhammad Ayub Khan. As Pakistan was facing an agricultural crisis due to waterlogging (saturation) and salinization, Kennedy offered academic expertise. Thomas and Revelle’s diagnosis — more, not less, irrigation by supplementing canal water with the extensive use of groundwater — changed the history of the country and the region.

“By doing good science, [offering] good policy, and engaging politicians, they left a mark that is still revered by Pakistanis today,” says Briscoe.

Likewise, his goal is to craft a program that brings together politicians with policies and science. “The science part standing alone, is interesting, important, and obviously necessary, but not sufficient,” he says. “At the same time, even the best technocratic policies can be a bit blue-eyed and pie in the sky. Proposals will only work when they make political sense, too.”

Already, with no influence from Washington, 10 of the governors of Brazil’s 27 states — Briscoe knows them all — have said they are ready to work with Harvard on issues like sustainable development in the Amazon. On campus, students have pitched thesis topics, and policymakers have offered collaborations.

To best direct such enthusiasm, Briscoe advises those interested in the water development business to first overcome a common “moral hazard.” As many have never lived without water, “they come up with a whole set of prescriptions about an imagined solution that has nothing to do with people’s actual situation,” he says.

Put another way, water is deeply personal. “If you want to understand it in your heart, live in Mozambique or India or turn the taps or electricity off for a week.”

At Harvard, Briscoe’s vision is to create an environment where students, faculty, and politicians can come “in and out of the fray” and gain “a sense of what the battles are really about and find enough distance to see the science and what’s essential in it.”

He pictures a series of “horizontal partnerships” in which faculty and students pair with their peers in Brazil (to start) and then those within Australia and Pakistan. “The old model of ‘send your best and brightest to Harvard’ must,” says Briscoe, “be replaced by new types of partnerships that reflect the changed global economic geography.”

Part of his plan includes training a new generation of “integrators” — the kind of individuals a future world leader might call in a crunch. With a Harvard degree, he says, “you are equipped to be adventurous, and that’s a fantastic gift” — and essential, he has found, for tackling a moving target like the water problem.

Briscoe offers a sense of optimism rather than dire Malthusian predictions about a coming drought. That “water has no respite” inspires him. Even the pessimistic poet Philip Larkin saw beauty in the Earth’s most elusive element: “And I should raise in the east/A glass of water/Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly.”