South African wins Stockholm Water Prize

25 March 2014

South African-born and trained engineer, researcher and policy maker John Briscoe was named on Monday as the winner of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize for 2014.

Briscoe, a dual South African and Irish citizen currently living and working in the United States, was named the prize winner “for his unparalleled contributions to global and local water management, inspired by an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of people on the ground,” the Stockholm International Water Institute said in a statement.

Briscoe has worked in dozens of countries around the world, and was responsible for formulating the World Bank’s 2003 Water Strategy, which “has had implications far beyond the water sector, helping to ensure that developing and emerging countries get a stronger voice in global governance”, the institute said.

Affected by upbringing in semi-arid areas

In a recorded interview with the institute, Briscoe, who is 66 years old, said he had been affected by his upbringing in semi-arid areas of South Africa, where there had been “an acute sense always of ‘turn off tap, don’t waste water, water’s expensive, water’s difficult to bring, don’t think it will always be there’.”

He had also, while growing up in South Africa during apartheid, been inspired by the example of his mother, who for a time had run an orphanage and day-care centre in Soweto outside Johannesburg.

“So what was also deeply inculcated in me as a child was a sense of tremendous inequality, of what development really has to do. And that sense of a … quest for the rights of people, and for the right of people to develop, is something that I think you will find in almost all South Africans who were brought up at that particular time.”

In South Africa, he added, as in most places in the world, mineral resources and water tended to be found far apart. “And so as a young engineer in South Africa I worked on projects which meant moving water from the places where we had it to places where the economy was naturally developing.”

Briscoe did his undergraduate studies in civil engineering at the University of Cape Town and his PhD in environmental engineering at Harvard University in the US, where he currently teaches.

Experience in Bangladesh, Mozambique

In the mid-1970s he lived in a small village in the interior of Bangladesh, where he learned first-hand how infrastructure for protection from floods and droughts could transform the lives of people. “I contributed something, but I learned a tremendous amount,” he said.

And in the 1990s he worked as an engineer in the government of newly independent Mozambique, where he learned that effective policy making meant solving basic problems of building and running infrastructure.

The perennial problem of water management, he told the institute, was that of variability, of managing extremes of floods and droughts. Solving this problem required both good infrastructure and effective institutions.

The developing world, he said, still faced the challenge of building “what colleagues of mine have called the ‘water platform for growth’ … the infrastructure and institutions so that you can get reliable hydro-power, so that you can get reliable water for agriculture, so that you can get reliable water for cities.”

Briscoe brought his experience of high-level policy with him to Brazil as World Bank country director in 2005. According to the institute, Brazil was one of the biggest of the World Bank’s borrowers, and 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.

“Professor Briscoe has become known for his passionate commitment to sustainable economic development, his disrespect for constructed boundaries between sectors and people, and for his insistence that the voice of people who are affected – from the poorest of farmers, to the private sector, to political leaders – be heard.”

Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, as patron of the Stockholm Water Prize, will present the prize to Briscoe at a ceremony to be held during World Water Week in Stockholm on 4 September.

SAinfo reporter