Renowned SA recipient of ‘Nobel prize for water’ dies

5th December 2014 By: Terence Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

World-renowned South African water engineer and academic Professor John Briscoe, who was the 2014 recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize, also known as the ‘Nobel prize for water’, has died at the age of 66.

Following a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer, he succumbed on the morning of November 12 at his home in Maryland, in the US – his wife, Conceicao, and family were at his side.

Briscoe, who worked for 22 years at the World Bank, was born in South Africa and schooled at St Patrick’s Christian Brothers College (CBC) Kimberley, before studying civil engineering at the University of Cape Town and later obtaining a doctorate in environmental engineering at Harvard University.

Prior to his death, CBC Kimberley set up the John Briscoe Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Award, to be presented to the Grade 12 student who showed the greatest achievements in mathematics and science and had indicated an intention to study engineering.

Briscoe matriculated at the school in 1965, having excelled both academically and on the sports fields, representing Griqualand West in both cricket and hockey.

In an interview with Engineering News earlier this year, Briscoe said he believed growing up in the semi-arid setting of Kimberley helped inculcate in him an acute sense that water security was not necessarily a given. There was always a sense, he said, that water should not be wasted, that it was expensive and that taps should be turned off.

As a young engineer in the Department of Water Affairs, Briscoe was involved in projects designed primarily to transfer water from areas of plenty to resources-heavy hinterland nodes many hundreds of kilometres away, where the absence of water had become the main constraint to economic growth and development.

In the mid-1970s, Briscoe lived in a small village in the interior of Bangladesh, and learned first-hand how infrastructure for protection from floods and droughts could transform the lives of the poor. Later in the 1970s, he worked as an engineer in the government of newly independent Mozambique, learning that you were a credible policymaker only if you could help resolve basic problems of building and running infrastructure.

These experiences, together with an exposure to apartheid inequality (primarily through his mother’s work at an orphanage and day-care centre in Soweto), inspired a desire to integrate the quest for human rights with the right of people to develop.

This twin objective found practical expression during Briscoe’s time at the World Bank, where he was central in crafting the bank’s water strategy, through a process that, for the first time in the bank’s history, gave emerging economies the decisive voice on the board.

Briscoe said he received the Stockholm Water Prize, which was presented by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in September, on behalf of a category of water industry professionals who have one foot in the “practical” world of engineering and the other in the “thinking” world of policymaking and academia.

He said he had learned the importance of infrastructure and institutions from a “great generation” of South African engineers, such as Theo von Robbroek, Paul Roberts and Bob Pullen, as well as the director of water resources in Mozambique, Arnaldo Lopes Pereira.

Understanding the importance of building both institutions and infrastructure remains, he argued, critical to addressing contemporary water problems, including managing variability between floods and drought, which has always been and remains “the water challenge”.

“Walking on these two legs – the infrastructure and the institutional legs – I think is critical.”

Briscoe received the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize for his “unparalleled contributions to global and local water management and for combining “world-class research with policy implementation and practice to improve the development and management of water resources as well as access to safe drinking water and sanitation”.