The Harvard University Water Security Initiative


There is growing recognition that many countries face major and changing threats to their water security and thus to their ability to provide people with drinking water and food and to produce energy and sustain economic growth.

The Harvard Water Security Initiative aims at stimulating world-class inter-disciplinary research which will enable policy-makers to better understand the water threats they face, and to better mobilize the full range of tools for addressing these threats.

The Initiative will engage on two tracks.

  • Track One will involve major collaborative partnerships between Harvard (and MIT) scientists and inter-disciplinary groups of scientists in about six countries (initially Brazil, Pakistan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa and the United States).

  • Track Two will involve discrete partnerships on specific water security issues with other countries where Harvard faculty and students are engaged. These currently include Cyprus, Jordan, Bangladesh, India, China, Ghana and Mexico. A focus of the Initiative will be on engaging a new generation of scholars – undergraduates, doctoral students, post-docs and young faculty.


Research domains and Participation

  • The first area of focus will be on the history of water and society, since social, cultural and religious understanding form the mental terrain on which all changes in water management practices must be built. Faculty members in Harvard’s History and Anthropology Departments have done seminal work on the history of water, and will be courted to engage with their colleagues in “focus countries” in this project.

  • The second area of focus will be to characterize the changing exogenous water security environment. In most cases this will include the effects of climate change on hydrology. In some ways Australia is at the forefront of this process, for it has seen dramatic reductions in rainfall over the past decade. Looking forward, much of the economy of Brazil depends on benign rainfall patterns, which are likely to change, perhaps dramatically, with Amazon deforestation and die-back. And Pakistan is a country built around one river, which depends heavily on both (retreating) Himalayan glaciers and changing monsoon rainfall patterns. Harvard faculty in Earth and Planetary Sciences and Biology are deeply engaged in climate change research and keen to extend that work to deal with hydrology. A number of the partner countries have major scientific programs on climate change, but in all cases closer integration of climate change and hydrology are vital. In some countries the exogenous water security environment is also closely related to broader inter-national political circumstances. Pakistan’s water, for example, mostly comes from India, China and Afghanistan. Faculty in Harvard’s Center for International Affairs have interest in engaging on international and inter-state aspects of water security, as do major institutions in Pakistan. 

  • The third area of focus is on tools which can be used within countries to manage water-related risks. These include: the design of crops which are better able to tolerate water scarcity and salinity (of interest to faculty in the Biology Department); the design of crop and rainfall insurance schemes (on which faculty in the Business School are engaged); the development of instruments including water markets and output-based incentive schemes (of interest to faculty in the Economics Department, Law School and Kennedy School of Government); smart infrastructure for the management of water (faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and MIT faculty); mechanisms for improving water quality and protecting populations from adverse water quality (School of Public Health faculty). 

  • The fourth area relates to the consequences of water management. This includes the economic impact of adaptation to climate change, better natural resource management and infrastructure (of interest to faculty at the Kennedy School) and the push and pull impact of water on migration (of interest to demographers in the School of Public Health). 


The Initial Partner Countries

There is broad interest among faculty and students from various schools within Harvard University working in the fields of earth and planetary sciences, biology, engineering, economics, government, business, anthropology, political science, history and public health to initiate a major interdisciplinary applied research program. A major emphasis will be engagement of young faculty and graduate and undergraduate students.

Our Harvard faculty members are eager to work collaboratively with researchers and practitioners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to address water security issues, starting with six countries: Brazil, Australia, Pakistan, the United States, South Africa and Mexico.

The potential partner countries are chosen (a) because they all have strong scientific capacity which makes a horizontal research and training partnership possible; and (b) because they all face major water challenges and (c) they represent a range of environmental challenges – including mountains (the Himalayas in Pakistan), forests (the Amazon in Brazil) and arid lands (Australia, South Africa and Mexico). 


Leadership at Harvard 

Under the leadership of Professor John Briscoe, Harvard is committed to bringing together outstanding faculty from the University to advance the intertwined global issues related to water including climate change, access to clean water, water quality, and technology transfer. Our mission is to work with key international, government, academic, and research partners to develop and move forward an innovative and ambitious water security agenda. 

John Briscoe is Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard School of Public Health, and the Kennedy School of Government. His career has focused on the issues of water, other natural resources, and economic development. He has lived in his native South Africa, India, Brazil, the United States, and Bangladesh and worked on water issues in these and many other countries. He has long experience in each of the countries of initial focus for the Water Security Initiative.

See the next Research subcategory (left column) for the latest update of The Harvard Water Security Initiative Proposal in PDF.