Interview with John Briscoe, Winner of the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize

March 21, 2014

My guest on this week’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast is CGD visiting fellow John Briscoe, named this week as the winner of the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize.

Presented annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute to an individual or organization whose work has contributed to “the conservation and protection of water resources and to improved well-being of the planet’s inhabitants and ecosystems,” the Stockholm Water Prize is the most prestigious such award in the world.   

Growing up in South Africa, a land of water scarcity, inspired John to pursue a career in water and development.

“Water is very visceral for all of us, but particularly for those of us who have grown up in arid environments,” John explains. “At one level it is very intellectual and practical, but at another level it is very deep in our psyche.”

As a young man, John lived in a flood-prone village in Bangladesh. I ask him to tell me about that experience (the quotes below, similar to our discussion in the Wonkcast, are lifted from a wonderful paper he wrote last year for the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment.

“Life in the village was nasty, brutish and short, with life expectancy of women 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.”

Today John bristles when those who enjoy the benefits of modern water infrastructure oppose efforts to help provide similar infrastructure to poor people in developing countries, an issue he addressed in a recent CGD blog post: Hydropower for Me But Not for Thee.

“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.

Our interview also covers John’s experience drafting an influential World Bank water strategy and later working as World Bank country director in Brazil. We also touch on New England’s “Goldilocks” water endowment and how that helped to generate the capital later used to address water scarcity in the arid western US.

We end our talk with a discussion about whether and how Africa might learn from Brazil’s success.

Tune into the Wonkcast to hear more, including details about John’s time in Bangladesh, Mozambique, and Brazil. Read what CGD president Nancy Birdsall has to say about John winning the Stockholm Water Prize. Even better, read John’s terrific paper for the Stanford Center for Food Security and the Environment “Water and Agriculture in Africa: The Politics of the Belly or the Politics of the Mirror.”


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.