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Photograph by Jim Harrison
John Briscoe

Harvard once had a renowned engineering program dedicated to water, and John Briscoe, Ph.D. ’76, was a student during its intellectual apogee. Growing up in South Africa, where a green, well-watered coastline rings the arid but economically important mining regions of the interior, he understood early the links between water and development. Briscoe, whose mother ran an orphanage and daycare center in Soweto (“Winnie Mandela worked for her for many years”) has brought his personal and political views about inequality and development to his work, in which he has facilitated water projects around the world, most recently as senior adviser to the World Bank’s $50-billion water program and then as the bank’s country director for Brazil. He arrived at Harvard in January with a joint appointment—McKay professor of environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and professor of the practice of environmental health in the School of Public Health—and a mandate to restore the water program to preeminence. Water, he says, is about more than potability, health, agriculture, energy production, and climate change: it touches on almost every aspect of life, including politics, religion, even civilization itself. “We think of the Three Gorges Dam as the world’s largest hydroelectric project,” he says, “but what does it mean in China?”—where historically, an emperor who failed to control water did not last. “It was Sun Yat-sen’s dream to build Three Gorges,” he adds, because doing so would “show that this is a government that controls the rivers…and is therefore a government that can maintain social order.”