Alumni Profile

Alumni profile: Winston Yu, S.M. ’98, Ph.D. ’03

Improving water security for millions around the world

Winston Yu

World Bank Senior Water Resources Specialist Winston Yu speaks during consultations with the Chinese government on water governance. (Photo provided by Winston Yu)

About 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, yet billions of people lack access to this precious resource. And while droughts ravage some parts of the world, others are plagued by destructive floods.

Winston Yu understands that disastrous irony all too well. As Senior Water Resources Specialist at the World Bank, he has worked on dozens of international projects aimed at protecting people from floods, improving irrigation systems, and helping governments sustainably manage water resources.

“Water itself is one of the most important subjects you can imagine,” said Yu, who graduated in 2003 with a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “The resource is so precious for our survival—civilizations come and go on their ability to manage water—yet we abuse it, misuse it, and take it for granted all the time.”

Yu’s interest in water began during his undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania, where he got involved with several environmental clubs on campus.

After earning joint degrees in economics and bioengineering, he shunned the Wall Street and Silicon Valley careers popular with classmates to focus on societal challenges. He was attracted to the Harvard Water Program, then led by Peter Rogers, Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering, because of its interdisciplinary nature. (Rogers passed away in 2018.)

Winston Yu inspecting a construction site

Yu inspects a construction site, the bottom of a large culvert for flood protection in Poland. (Photo provided by Winston Yu)

Yu arrived at Harvard planning to study groundwater contamination and Superfund sites, but after learning about a unique opportunity to conduct research for the World Bank, he changed course. In the summer of 1997, he took off for Bangladesh to explore the arsenic contamination prevalent throughout the country’s rural water supply.

“I had never heard of Bangladesh, except for the George Harrison Concert for Bangladesh in the 1970s. And I had never even thought about arsenic as a contaminate,” he said. “But there I was, trying to understand why the arsenic was there and searching for potential solutions.”

Conducting research in a very rural area of a developing country came with logistical challenges, including limited access to equipment and resources. But despite the hardships, fieldwork instantly appealed to him.

“I have fond memories of injecting molasses into the ground to look at how introducing carbon into the subsurface would change the geochemistry and mobilize arsenic,” he said.

Beyond science, Yu’s work often left him pondering ethical questions. Millions of Bangladeshis began using groundwater, rather than surface water, for drinking and irrigation in the 1980s, helping the nation overcome the devastating famines of the prior decade. But that massive switch to groundwater usage changed the chemistry of the subsurface and made arsenic more mobile, ultimately causing widespread water contamination.

Winston Yu prepares to board a helicopter

Yu prepares to board a helicopter to conduct geophysical surveys to map out groundwater aquifers in India. (Photo provided by Winston Yu)

“The health impacts of arsenic are very different than mortality from diarrheal diseases caused by drinking polluted surface water—we are talking about cancers with a very long timeframe,” he said. “I found this difficult to navigate because it raises moral and ethical questions and value judgments about different diseases.”

After earning his Ph.D., Yu completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Stockholm Environmental Institute where he modeled climate change and its impacts on river basins in California and China.

He then became an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow at the U.S. State Department, where he worked on reconstructing the water supply system in Iraq following the U.S. invasion. Yu worked to open up irrigation canals that Saddam Hussein had closed off because they fed Kurdish areas of the country.

“I had a lot of reservations about the Iraq War, so politically I felt very strange about working for the U.S. government,” he said. “But on the other hand, what I was doing was a good thing. Reopening these canals and bringing water back to these Kurdish areas not only restored biodiversity, but also provided water for these marginalized communities to resume agricultural practices and generate livelihoods.”

Yu enjoyed the opportunity to help people through his posting at the State Department, but he missed fieldwork. So he applied to the Young Professionals program at the World Bank, where he has worked for the past 15 years.

His current role is split into two parts. In one, he manages large investment projects with World Bank client countries that are related to flood control, irrigation, and water resources management.

“This job is about designing projects and making sure during implementation that the resources are generating benefits for the poorest of the poor, that it is helping people,” he said. “It is really about trying to lift people’s incomes and improving their circumstances in a very sustainable way.”

Yu also commissions and leads studies on topics including water productivity, climate change and water, the role of dams in development, and reallocation of water from rural to urban areas -- research that helps the World Bank provide advice and guidance to its country clients. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a course on international water issues.

Winston Yu stands next to a Vishap stone in Armenia

Yu stands next to a Vishap stone in Armenia. These stones are ancient in origin, perhaps from the 13th century, and were used to indicate the presence of water. (Photo provided by Winston Yu)

His boots-on-the-ground work has taken him to more than a dozen countries, from Pakistan and Uzbekistan to Poland and Armenia. In Poland, for instance, he worked on a multi-billion-euro project to vastly improve the nation’s flood control systems.

“Every country has a history, a culture, and a language. I love learning about each country I’ve worked in. But quite honestly, each country faces very similar types of water challenges,” he said. “There is a cultural, political, and historical context, but fundamentally we are all trying to use this resource as best we can and preserve it for future generations, while at the same time trying to minimize the impacts of too much water or too little water.”

The biggest challenges he faces, and also the most rewarding aspects of his job, come from the people he interacts with. Planning a massive water infrastructure project is one thing, but its success is entirely dependent on the human and institutional elements that are at play.

Yu, a classical violinist and former member of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, says success often results from his ability to improvise, both as a musician and a project manager.  

“The most rewarding part of my job is that I can make a difference. I can take what I’ve learned and hopefully make meaningful and long-lasting change for somebody, whether that is a farmer, a community, or a government,” he said. “For me, this job is really about trying to make systematic change. I don’t want to just build something and have that be it. I want to build something that empowers and enables people to do more. That’s what I enjoy the most.”

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