Profile on Biswas by A.J.S. Rayl

Asit K. Biswas

Engineer, scientist, and manager
Founder and president, Third World Centre for Water Management

Asit K. Biswas was born in the small town of Balasore, in the state of Orissa in eastern India. It is best known at present for its Chandipur Beach resort and its ballistic missile test range. “It was and still is one of the economically backward provinces of India,” he says.

He found heroes in his parents—Anil Biswas, “a humble medical doctor,” and Asha Biswas—both of whom he describes as “most remarkable,” each for instilling values and teaching simple but important lessons that have served him throughout his life.

“One of the things I learned from my father was in something he said a long time ago,” he says. “I still remember the moment. He said: ‘Son, when two people agree on everything, you can be sure that only one of the them is doing all the thinking.’ Secondly, I remember his quote, from Napoleon Bonaparte: ‘Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of the fools.’

“My mother, although she had very little education, devoted her life to bringing up my two sisters and me properly,” Biswas says. By his definition, that means they grew up in ‘a very privileged and intellectual’ family. “We learned to question things right from the beginning. When you start from that first principle, you find there are many alternatives.”

After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India’s elite engineering university, he worked as a civil engineer at Ward, Ashcroft and Parkman in Liverpool, England. Then in 1962, he accepted an offer to become a research fellow at the Loughborough University of Technology, England, and in 1963 was hired as a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He had no idea the turn his career was about to take.

“The newest lecturer gets the topic that no one else wants to teach,” he explains. “I wanted to specialize in the area of soil mechanics. Unfortunately, that was taken. What no one wanted to teach was fluid dynamics and hydraulics. So I ended up seriously learning hydraulics and fluid mechanics in order to teach my students. I was literally three weeks ahead of my students,” he chuckles.

And then something happened. While Biswas thought soil mechanics was “a much more interesting topic,” once he started learning fluid mechanics, he took to it like . . . well, a duck to water. “When the time came to choose new lecturers, I said, 'No I'm going to stick to it,’” he says. The rest would become his biography.

In 1967, he took a sabbatical to Canada and became a visiting professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, which touts “an international reputation for scholarship, social purpose, spirit and diversity.” “It's supposed to be the university in Canada where most of the senior civil servants come from,” says Biswas. “Six months down the line, I got a call from a fellow who said he was the director general from a department in Ottawa, inquiring if I would be interested in going to Ottawa. I had no interest in being a civil servant or in Ottawa. He wouldn't take no for an answer.

“Finally, he said: ‘Have you ever been to Ottawa? Come and visit at our cost.’ There, he promised if I took the position, he would leave me alone. I could go anywhere, hire my own people, invite anyone to come here, don't worry about the money. It was an offer I could not refuse!” he says. In that job, he wound up working with people like Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “a fantastic intellectual,” as Biswas remembers him.

During the decade he would spend in Ottawa, Biswas was instrumental in establishing the International Water Resources Association in 1972 and served as a senior scientist in the country’s Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources from 1968 to 1970. And, when the Government of Canada decided to establish a new Ministry of Environment in 1970, he played an important role during its formative years.

Ten years, however, was enough. “In 1977, I went to my deputy minister and said, ‘Sir, I want to resign,’” he recounts. “I realized I was doing absolutely nothing substantial and I did not want to do it the rest of my life. Everyone said I was stupid for leaving the civil service when everything looked so green.” But, Biswas hasn’t even had time to think about looking back.

On leaving the comfort and security of his Canadian civil service post, Biswas headed back to the Third World. In 1974, while in his Canadian post, he had been invited to help formulate the program of the then-newly established United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, and spent 15 months there under the Executive Interchange Programme of the Government of Canada. In 1978, he was appointed senior scientific adviser to the executive director of UNEP, Mostafa Kamal Tolba, who became one of his mentors.

At the request of Tolba, Biswas early on acted as a senior adviser to Yehia Abdel Mageed, secretary general of the UN Water Conference in the late 1970s. In that role, he was the first to propose the idea of an “International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade.” “I realized that this could radically change the life of a lot of people and put water supply and sanitation for the first time in the international political agenda,” he says. The Decade was approved unanimously by the UN General Assembly for 1981–1990. It wound up ensuring that hundreds of millions of people in the developing world would get access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. “We started putting water quality slowly on the interventional agenda,” he says. Biswas continued to advise Tolba until Tolba’s retirement in 1992.

By the time the International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade began, Biswas was in Luxemburg, Austria, for a year finishing up as a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). By the summer of 1981, however, he was packing again, this time heading to England to settle down for a while in Oxford, to pursue his research interests and advise national governments and international organizations. He would be ensconced there into 1997.

Biswas married Cecilia Tortajada, whom he met in Mexico during one of his missions to advise the Mexican government on water issues. They have one daughter, Andrea Lucia, who is grown now.

From 1993 through 1997, Biswas chaired the Middle East Water Commission, which directly contributed to the signing of two treaties in this region. And, in response to an increasing concern about world water issues from the global community, Biswas helped establish the World Water Council (WWC) from 1990 to 1996. He was also one of the most active members of the World Commission on Water, which the WWC formed in 1998.

In 1999, Biswas founded an independent, knowledge-based think tank in Mexico City to focus on knowledge generation, synthesis, application, and dissemination. He christened it the Third World Centre for Water Management.

“I came to the conclusion that many of the things we’re teaching in academia are not right,” Biswas says bluntly. “I decided to do some thinking to see whether the ideas we were teaching at Oxford and elsewhere were any good. So I set up the Centre. Sure enough, I found that the majority of things we are teaching are either obsolete and or don’t work, or were purely academic exercises, not very different to what they used to do at Oxford in the 10th and 11th centuries when the main research topic was to find out how many angels can dance on the top of a pin. Yes, things have changed a little bit since then. But much of the research we’re doing at the universities all over the world is not relevant, or appropriate, or applicable.”

Biswas is doing everything he can to change that. Under his dynamic leadership, the Centre has established a unique international identity for pursuing cutting-edge and far-reaching research and strongly encouraging out-of-the-box thinking. As a result, within 10 short years, the Centre has established a unique reputation in the world of water as a generator of new and innovative ideas. Work produced is often published by major international publishers in several languages. “I am now preaching a very simple philosophy: ‘There's no harm of living in an ivory tower as long as it’s not your only place of residence,’” says Biswas.

Biswas and Tortajada, currently president of the International Water Resources Association, make their home in Mexico City. Daughter Andrea Lucia is completing her master’s degree in international development at the London School of Economics. She seems to be following quickly in her father’s footsteps. In 2005, while an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, she received an award for her poster at the Stockholm Water Symposium.

Amidst everything else, Biswas founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development, for which he has been editor-in-chief for the past 23 years. He is also the author or editor of 67 books, with four more now being prepared for publication, and has published more than 600 scientific and technical papers. His work has been translated into 32 languages. His latest books, Water Management in 2020 and Beyond and Impacts of Megaconferences on the Water Sector, both co-authored with his wife, have just been published by Springer Verlag (June 2009).

Today, Biswas is one of the world’s leading authorities in water management. It’s an accolade he achieved by learning the lessons of his parents and living accordingly. Throughout his life, he has constantly challenged the “status quo.” In the process, he helped usher in a new era of thinking among United Nations agencies, national governments, professional associations, and others about how to improve delivery of water and sanitation services and management of our water resources. All told so far, he has been an adviser to six heads of United Nations agencies, most major bilateral and multilateral aid organizations, and 17 national governments, assisting in countless millions getting the water they desperately need.

Beyond advising and guiding people and countries around the world, Biswas puts aside some funds each year to continue his research. One of his many areas of special interest is how trans-boundary rivers flowing through two or more countries—like the Ganges, Jordan, Euphrates, or Nile—can be properly managed.

Currently, Biswas regularly commutes globally—from Mexico, where he has his centre; to Zaragoza, Spain, where he acts as a regular adviser to the president and minister of environment of the state of Aragon; and to Singapore, where he is a longtime Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. An avid collector of art since 1971, he now has acquired, he says, “a good collection of Western, Mexican, and Indian art.”

Biswas has been honored for his work with numerous and various awards. In 2006, he received the Stockholm Water Prize, a prestigious global award presented annually to an individual, organization, or institution for outstanding water-related activities. In that same year he also received the prestigious Aragon Environment Prize of Spain and was named Man of the Year in Canada He is the recipient of both the Crystal Drop and Millennium awards, the two highest awards of the International Water Resources Association, as well as the Walter Huber Award of the American Society of Civil Engineering.

The University of Lund, Sweden, bestowed on him an honorary doctor of technology degree in 1984, and last year the Helsinki University of Technology awarded him an honorary doctor of science in technology degree during their centennial celebration, as did the University of Strathclyde and the Institute of Technology (Kharagpur). He is a member of the International Water Resources Association.

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance science writer based in Malibu, Calif. She has written on assignment for a variety of magazines, including Air & Space, Astronomy, Discover, Reader’s Digest, and Smithsonian, as well as online ventures including the Planetary Society’s website, http//