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John Briscoe remembered

We received the sad news that on 12 November 2014, water resources expert John Briscoe passed away after a long illness, aged 66. As recognised by the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize, the career he dedicated to alleviating poverty leaves a remarkable legacy.

John Briscoe“People in the world want a life like you and I have. Listen to them, don’t lecture too much, and help them make it happen.” These were the words of Professor John Briscoe as he received the Stockholm Water Prize – ‘the Nobel Prize of water’, as it is known – for his “unparalleled contributions to global and local water management”.

Jens Berggren, director of the Stockholm Water Prize, said of Prof. Briscoe: “He is the most extraordinarily worthy winner – one of the giants in the water world. 

“He has worked on economics, water resources, demographics, anthropogy – and he has been able to synthesise all of that into practical guidelines and strong policies on how to move forward towards a better and more water-wise world.”

We had the privilege of speaking with Prof. Briscoe at the 2014 World Water Week in Stockholm about his career and his views on the barriers to progress in the developing world.

He explained how his early life experiences in South Africa inspired his passion for water resources management. “I grew up partially in Jabalpur, but then in Kimberley – a semi-desert – and I grew up always with a sense that water is scarce, and that one of the heroic tasks for society is to bring the water from places where it is abundant along the coast to places where it is needed for the economy and for people.”

He studied civil engineering at the University of Cape Town, which he described as an “incredibly boring education” until enlivened by the tutelage of one particular professor. “The way life works is somebody captures something in you, and I was very fortunate to be inspired by my professor,” he said. 

“He was the person who did fantastic work on biological waste systems in Zambia and eventually all around the world, and he took me under his wing. Water for me was like a sense of openness, with questions and fluidity, and of non-rigidity.” 

The way life works is somebody captures something in you, and I was very fortunate to be inspired by my professor." – John Briscoe

After graduating in Cape Town, Prof. Briscoe worked in the ministry of water resources in South Africa before moving to the United States for graduate school. "My career took me to many parts of the globe; as well as my home country and the USA, I spent time living in Bangladesh, Brazil, India and Mozambique."

His experience of the developing world – as epitomised in the quote that opens this article – is that the people want similar things as in the developed world. “They just want systems that function,” he says. “And once you can give them the rudiments in terms of basic utilities, a basic rule of law and a basic security for water, countries in the developing world will flourish.”

In his speech at the opening plenary in Stockholm, Prof. Briscoe criticised what he described as the “breath-taking hypocrisy” of those advocating against the developing world utilising its hydropower resources, when the developed world enjoys the use of 80 per cent of its  potential. 

Speaking with us afterwards, he elaborated on the fundamental role hydropower has played in developed economies, noting that it has powered many societies of the western world. 

“The idea that reservoirs are all environmental catastrophes is a complete nonsense. Of course there’s some impact, but also if you try to take down these projects in the United States for example, there’s the habitat, recreation and industry that have developed around them, for which there will be a similar impact.  

“In Brazil there was one large dam which should never have been built – it flooded a very large area and produced very little hydro – but does that mean you can never do that again? No, you pay attention to it, and you make much smarter decisions.”

John worked with the World Bank for over two decades, including a period in the early 2000s in which he was instrumental in making the case for hydropower’s crucial role in tackling water and energy poverty. He was undoubtedly a strong voice in the path that led to the World Bank announcing in 2013 that it would once again fund hydropower projects.

He pointed towards the difficulties that political leaders still face in Africa when it comes to making decisions on the funding source of new infrastructure. 

Discussing the stipulations that development banks can place on funding projects, he said: “If you’re building a hydropower plant in Africa, it seems to me at least you want to make sure that the thing is well constructed, you want to make sure that consumers are receiving services from it, and you want to make sure that local people get direct benefits, but the list goes on.  

“On the other hand, you don’t want a fly-by-night construction company coming in and building something that’s going to fall down.”

In the last five years of his life, John Briscoe was professor of environmental engineering and environmental health, and director of the Water Security Initiative at Harvard University.

Reflecting on his achievements after receiving the Stockholm Water Prize in September, he said: “I have had an incredibly lucky life. I’ve had great parents, a great family, and a life full of opportunity."