On Monday, 24 March 2014, South African-born John Briscoe was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize for 2014. This prominent award was given to Briscoe for his undeterred contribution to global and local water management, inspired by his past experiences of water plights.
John Briscoe was born in South Africa in 1948. Briscoe said he came of age during the era of apartheid. “My mother ran an orphanage and day-care centre in Soweto, and as a child I was inculcated with a sense of tremendous inequality and a quest for the rights of people to develop,” he said.
He said his home country “provided me with the formative experiences for later work.” In the semi-dessert climate of South Africa, Briscoe lived with “an acute sense of water scarcity,” and in his early 20’s, Briscoe moved to a flood-prone village of Bangladesh, where he first learned about how infrastructure could offer protection from floods and droughts – which were highly susceptible to the village – and could better the lives of its people as well as save them.
In an interview, Briscoe told Lawrence MacDonald, vice president for communications and policy outreach at the Center for Global Development, “Life in the village was nasty, brutish and short, with the life expectancy of women at 46 years,” he recalls. “As a young socialist-environmentalist I opposed a plan for an Asian Development Bank-funded project that would put an embankment around the island, arguing that this would destroy the ecology and only make the rich richer.”
“Twenty-two years later I returned to the village for two weeks, to find a different world. Life expectancy of a woman was now 68 years, with life transformed primarily because the flood control and irrigation project meant that there were now three high-yielding crops a year.”
Briscoe received his Ph.D in Environmental engineering at Harvard in 1976 at the age of 28, and began working as an engineer in Mozambique in 1990. He later returned to Harvard as a faculty member in 2009.
At 66, he is currently the professor in the schools of Engineering and Applied Science; Public Health; and Government at Harvard. Before that, however, in 2005 Briscoe brought his experience to Brazil and became the World Bank Country Director. According to The News (International), Brazil was one of the biggest of the World Bank’s borrowers, and John Briscoe “was praised for bridging the divide between sound environmental management and economic development objectives in the Amazon and other parts of this rapidly developing nation.”
Commenting on his achievement of the Stockholm Water Prize for 2014, Briscoe told the Harvard Crimson, “I feel the award to me is a recognition of a class of people who work on water – practitioners with one foot in practice and another foot in ideas,” Briscoe said. “I’m a representative of these ‘thinking practitioners.’”
“It is important to try and see the world through the eyes of people who are affected by these projects – not through a discussion in the Washington Post, not through a discussion on Capitol Hill, not through a discussion with major lobby groups in Washington – but trying to see what happened on the ground,” he says.