“The Water Guy” – Dr. Peter P. Rogers (1937-2018)

Peter P. Rogers

By Montgomery Simus & Susan Leal

He was by education and training a rational engineer. As a Harvard scholar and a gentleman he was unsentimental, not prey to easy enthusiasms or glib simplifications, and brought his powers of critical reasoning to research, analyze and solve problems. Not just any problems, however, only the thorniest would do, and these were invariably related to life’s matrix.

Peter Rogers, who died on February 8, was, as his wife Suzanne called him, “the Water Guy.”

The water problems he found most worthy didn’t exist on paper, in theory, or even in the labs of the university. No, the most pressing questions arose out there in the hot and dry corners of world. And so out there is where he went to answer them.

He was drawn to the consequences of population growth on natural resources development; conflict resolution in international river basins; the impacts of global change on water resources; and the development of indices of environmental quality and sustainable development. His curiosity took him across four continents to carry out extensive field and model studies on the nexus of population, water and energy resources.

“For how do we really know anyone?” asked Peter McGhee, at the Cambridge, Massachusetts funeral service. “One way is to see what they have done in the world.”

Indefatigable, to the point that others worried about his pace and travels in lands that exhausted those people a third his age, Rogers had most recently focused his attentions overseas. In China he was exploring the impacts of electric power on global warming. In Morocco he had launched a pilot testing the innovative uses of virtual urban markets that might better value water and thus motivate people’s behavior to conserve it. In both places he worked with current former students to whom he listened carefully, and challenged pointedly. As one colleague said, “Peter spoke truth to problems.”

He did so as a man of letters, as the co-author of several books. These include Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource, the textbook An Introduction to Sustainable Development, and Water Crisis: Myth or Reality.

He also spoke truth to problems from the podium, as the Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering and Professor of City Planning at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But arguably his lasting impact was speaking truth in person, in small groups or one-on-one discussions where he generated new approaches to old challenges.

Born in Liverpool, Dr. Rogers used his own engineering studies and early work experience to foster a personal style of exceptional teaching and scholarship, intimately combined with a personal love and concern for students and colleagues. His keen enthusiasm and energy for analytical rigor and engineering helped inspire a generation of students, faculty members, and project team leads to pursue their activities with passion, perspective, and precision yet keep the human element of all that we do in the forefront.

Dr. Rogers’ memory will live on in his scholarly writing and lives of many students and colleagues with whom he shared his wisdom, wit, and passion for life.

That passion won him prestige among peers (advising the Global Water Partnership; American Academy of Environmental Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers); recognition (recipient of Guggenheim, Twentieth Century, Wenner-Gren, and Maass-White Fellowships, and the Warren A. Hall Medal of the Universities Council on Water Resources); and prizes (2010 Julian Hinds Award from the Environmental Water Resources Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers).

Yet he never became entirely comfortable with or captive to these exalted trappings of his past career. There were always new questions demanding answers. So when not at home with his family, he often seemed happiest, most alive and attentive, in the field.

“Another measure of man,” said McGhee, “is what sort of person he was in the world. What did he mean to others? By this measure Peter Rogers was a giant. To Suzanne, and to his sons Christopher and Justin, the loss of a husband and father is immeasurable. From around the world the death of the Water Guy brought a flood of tears, yes, and outpouring of memories from former students and colleagues, genuine expressions of love from the people he touched.”