How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I originally wanted a career in a field that I felt would impact the world. I was born in Pakistan, a country where poverty and human rights abuse are part and parcel of life. I found that working in the public sector was inefficient and ineffective, and the only way to move forward was embracing technology. In fact, technology has impacted the lives of people more than any single leader or politician.
I decided to therefore pursue a career in engineering, which I felt would equip me with the technical skills to design solutions to the world’s biggest problem, which an activist, politician, leader, or any public official would still not be able to do without having the pre-requisite skills. Today, I work in the water sector with an international organization that designs solutions for green growth. I presently am working on projects in Vietnam, Cambodia, Jordan and India.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I always hesitate to answer. I’m a water resources engineer, and at any given time, maybe two other people know actually what that means. Others try to overplay the importance of water in their lives, perhaps to give credence to my relatively unheard of career. To avoid the usual awkwardness, I sometimes just say I work at the World Bank or I work at a university teaching sustainable development. It’s easier than going into the whole explanation of what I actually do there.
Eight years ago, I too had no clue of what a water resources engineer even meant. I also hadn’t given thought to what I really wanted to pursue as a career. As a high-achieving student, I was often asked, “What do you want to do?”, and I regularly found excuses to deflect this question. At the time I was applying to college, I was still uncertain, and ended up declaring my major to be biomedical engineering, perhaps out of a sense of familial obligation to be the “doctor” in the family. This changed to Folklore and Mythology by the middle of my first year, changing two months later to East Asian studies.
Water didn’t come into the picture, until after my first year, when I met my future mentor and adviser, John Briscoe. I approached him when he was first giving a talk on water and its critical role in Pakistan’s development. After some very casual discussions, I ended up spending my summer as a research associate in Islamabad, working on an Asian Development Bank-funded water development project in Pakistan. At the time, I was a wee freshman, unbeknownst to the “world of water” and thought that this would be a one-off internship. Except for one reason or another, I continued to remain in this field. The following year, I won a two-year fellowship to look at water resource management in federally managed river basins. This two year research project, the Harvard Water Federalism Project, was the first of its kind to open the debate about challenges of managing river basins within multiple jurisdictions. Within this time period, I briefly interned with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, in Vicksburg, MS — where I sampled some delicious Southern cuisine. The culmination of my four years at Harvard led to an award-winning thesis on award and two publications, which seemed testament to my success in this field.
And in case you are wondering, my final major was environmental engineering (Water Track).
One year later, I landed a grant from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences to study water allocation in drought conditions. I ended up spending the next two years doing hydrodynamic modeling in the Sacramento — San Joaquin Valley, while completing my Masters Degree at UC Davis. Before I had graduated from my Masters, I ended up getting offered a position of a water resources consultant at the World Bank in Washington DC. So instead of walking down the graduation isle, I took a week long break in my hometown of Lahore, before moving back to the East Coast.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
There are too many to be honest, but perhaps if I had to choose one, it was during my undergraduate, where I worked on an independent research project that looked at the Mississippi River and the Indus River. Both rivers encounter seasonal flooding but the way officials manage flooding was what was more interesting.
I developed a GIS-based decision support tool using hydrodynamic models and GIS which would provide policy makers the necessary information to identify areas that are likely to get flooded, and at what levels. I used this model to look at river stretches of the Indus and Mississippi. The research was also awarded a Hoopes Award of $6000, which is the highest accolade awarded by Harvard University for research.
Tell us about your work
The Zarqa River in Jordan has become so polluted by raw sewage and agricultural and industrial waste that the river, a critical resource in this arid nation, carries a sickly, brownish hue. Treatment plants are consistently overloaded, and despite clear negative impacts on health and the environment, illegal dumping continues.
What the Zarqa River Basin needs is a new approach to environmental remediation, according to alumna Laila Kasuri, A.B. ’13, an environmental science and engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Kasuri co-leads a team at the Global Green Growth Institute that is working with Jordanian officials to establish a master plan for developing the Zarqa River Basin, which includes setting up free trade zones, developing tech firm hubs, and promoting local sustainable economic initiatives. These will result in economic revival of the region, while meeting the ultimate goal of improving water quality and water resource management, Kasuri said.
“We are trying to go beyond water through this solution. Degraded environmental quality is often a symptom, not a cause,” she said. “If people are still suffering from the same poor economic conditions, they are going to keep polluting the river. Building another treatment plant won’t really solve the problem. It will be solved by investing in people, educating them, and encouraging them to value and care for the river and their natural resources.”
This unique approach to water quality and water resource management is the crux of GGGI, an inter-governmental organization headquartered in Seoul, South Korea, that partners with developing nations to design programs that demonstrate new pathways towards green growth. Kasuri, who recently joined the organization as a water policy solutions analyst, leads projects all over the world.
Her interest in water flows back to her experiences as a Harvard undergrad; during a lecture by Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering John Briscoe, she became so inspired that she traveled to Pakistan to work alongside Briscoe on a water resources development project funded by the Asian Development Bank.
“For the first time, I saw the political aspects of water and how there are many different stakeholders involved, while simultaneously learning about many technicalities of water resources management,” she said.
After receiving a research fellowship, Kasuri applied those skills in a vastly different environment—the deeply rooted communities that line the lower Mississippi River.
She worked on hydraulic modeling projects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the heavily leveed Lower Mississippi reaches that are prone to frequent flooding. Driving through the poor, yet colorful rural communities that crowd the riverbank between Memphis and New Orleans provided a fascinating cultural case study for Kasuri, a native Pakistani.
“I find it fascinating how people are engaging with water and how they find solutions to manage it,” she said. “Along the Mississippi, people have a strong relationship with the river as an environmental force; it carries an almost magical quality. By contrast, in the Indus Basin, the river is seen as an economic resource; the environmental value is often not even considered.”
Tell us about your career path
After earning a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis, Kasuri accepted a position at the World Bank. She worked on a flood embankment project in the Brahmaputra River Basin in Bangladesh, a frequently flooded river basin that is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
From there, Kasuri returned to Pakistan, where she helped launch The Center for Water Informatics and Technology at Lahore University of Management Sciences, and taught a university course focused on the multitude of factors involved in water resources management. Writing grants and inking business deals posed a unique challenge, but with the research center soon running smoothly, she embarked on a new adventure at GGGI.
How does your work benefit the society?
In addition to her work in Jordan, Kasuri leads a project in India to provide rural farmers with energy-efficient solar-powered irrigation pumps, which encourage water and energy conservation by improving efficiency and incentivizing farmers to pump less water through energy buyback schemes. The project also generates a reliable source of power for India’s strained and unreliable grid. She is also co-leading a project in Vietnam to explore the establishment of a comprehensive index-based climate insurance program for farmers to insure them against losses due to extreme events such as flooding or drought, which often devastate the region.
These unique approaches to sustainable water resources management appeal to Kasuri’s creative side, while the opportunity to help protect the environment and improve the lives of people around the world is extremely gratifying.
“The biggest lesson I have learned is to be open to different points of view,” she said. “I started out being focused solely on preservation, but over time I’ve seen that different people have different needs. I don’t think there is one right answer to the problem of water quality management. In any environmental solution, it is critical to find balance, keep listening, and continue learning from the people around you.”
Role models and heroes:
A great role model and mentor was my own advisor, John Briscoe, who passed away in 2015. He was a water practitioner from South Africa, and also won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2014. He was a strong force in pushing me to pursue STEM and grow in a field that was inundated by men.
I am currently trying to expand mentors who are more entrepreneurial. Elon Musk is someone I really consider as my hero. I always wish I had the ability to take risks the way he did. I also think that his relentlessness, despite failure is inspirational.
Why do you loving working in STEM?
I really like solving puzzles, and STEM allows me to solve puzzles and also make a difference at the same time. In fact, a simple problem such as sanitation can be solved by engineers who can now innovate and valorise waste to produce energy. Similarly, working on hydropower projects is exciting especially to see how water can be used to run appliances in our homes. It is exciting to know that STEM can be used to solve some of the greatest challenges in the world! I have truly had some very exciting opportunities through STEM!
Advice for future STEMinists?
I advise them to become leaders! All too often, women become followers and hardly ever find mentors who can encourage them to take risks. I really suggest future STEMinists to take risks and also fail. For every opportunity I have gotten, I must have failed at least ten times. For every job offer or fellowship I got, I received at least twenty rejections. It’s certainly difficult to be rejected time and time again, especially if the candidate selected is a man who can visit more sites or work in certain areas, but I am always glad I tried!