Interview with Alan J. Hall

 

Dr Taba recounts

The International Year of Freshwater, 2003, received its official launch at a ceremony of the United Nations in New York on 12 December 2002 with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of protecting and managing freshwater. In this context, the Third World Water Forum (WWF3) was held in Japan in March 2003 and discussed several reports covering water-related issues. The Forum also hosted two ministerial meetings. It was therefore appropriate that WMO, which is actively involved in several water- related areas (water and climate, climate change, floods and water information) and had contributed to WWF3, should also mark this occasion with some specific activities. Two important events were planned and carried out by WMO during 2003. First, the IMO Lecture given during Fourteenth WMO Congress (Geneva, May 2003) was devoted to the importance of freshwater, and the second event is the choice of a hydrologist as our interviewee of this issue.
 

Alan Hall

 
Alan Hall

The two invited experts for the IMO Lecture were: HE Dr Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation of Egypt, who is also the President of the World Water Council, and Prof. Igor A. Shiklomanov, Director of the State Hydrological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation. As to our interviewee of this issue, Alan Hall is an Australian hydrologist, well-known to WMO, with many years of experience in both the northern and the southern hemispheres. Before commencing our interview with Alan and introducing him to readers, I wish to provide some background information.

In March 1977, at the United Nations Conference on Water in Mar del Plata, Argentina, several recommendations were made concerning development of water resources through national, regional and international cooperation. In particular, the Conference recognized that an assessment of the quantity and quality of the water available is a prerequisite for water-resources development and management, and resolved that all efforts should be undertaken to substantially increase financial resources for related activities. These calls led to various efforts from WMO, UNESCO and other UN agencies, the last and most relevant of which has been the publication of the World Water Development Report.

The next milestone was the International Conference on Water and the Environment, held in Dublin, Ireland, in 1992. WMO played a key role in the organization of this Conference, which consolidated the principle of integrated water resources management (IWRM).

As a contribution to the preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, proposed an important initiative to seek focus and impetus to action in five key thematic areas: Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity and ecosystem managements. Within this framework, water has been recognized as the key resource for every aspect of life. In a few decades, the urban population in developing countries will have doubled, while global sanitation and water programmes are not geared to keep pace. Today, one in five children dies before the age of five, mainly from water-related diseases. A major outcome of WSSD was the commitment to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by the year 2015.

As regards WWF3, the emphasis was on implementing the commitments made at WSSD through the fostering of partnerships to improve governance and ownership of water-resources management.

In brief, water interacts with all sectors of the economy. While the amount of available freshwater resources remain constant, water demands continue to grow. It is therefore the responsibility of all to manage this precious resource for economic and social well-being.

In concluding his address to the WMO Congress, Dr Abu-Zeid said that immediate action had to be taken in the following areas: the implementation of IWRM principles; good governance that ensures transparency and stakeholders’ participation in water-resources management; building capacity to enable developing countries to manage their water resources in a sustainable manner; encouraging the private sector’s participation in water-resources management; applying a mechanism leading to the efficient allocation and use of water resources; improving the performance of existing water-supply systems; transferring the management of water to users through decentralized mechanisms; making existing systems and future management sustainable; using debt-swap instruments; and exploring maximum economic potential from available water resources.
 

Alan Hall with participants in a WMO Seminar

 
Bandung, Indonesia, February 1979 —Alan Hall with participants in a WMO Seminar on Intense Precipitation and Floods

In his address to the Congress, Prof. Shiklomanov said that the greatest increase in global water use—four times more than in previous decades—started in the years 1951 to 1980. This was due mainly to rapid population growth, increase in the irrigated surface area worldwide and the rapid development of industry. After 1980, the rate of increase in global water use dropped significantly as a result of curtailed growth in irrigated areas and greater efficiency in industrial freshwater usage in developed countries. According to Shiklomanov, the cardinal solution to water supply in developing regions is to introduce a set of measures for the use of freshwater into the world economy by introducing more efficient and up-to-date technology and at the same time to seek  additional water resources.

Alan Hall became interested in hydraulics and hydrology while working as a student during vacations with the Water Research Foundation of Australia. During his final undergraduate year at the University of New South Wales (NSW), Alan was the first appointed Cadet Engineer in the Water Resources Branch of the Northern Territory (NT) Administration. He obtained an honours degree in Civil Engineering in 1961. In 1962, he completed a Master of Engineering Science Degree in Hydraulics and Hydrology. In February 1963, he commenced duty in Darwin, where his work covered primarily groundwater, including siting of bores. He became involved with general water-resources studies. During the first half of 1966, he acted as  joint Head of the Groundwater Section in the NT. He then joined the Bureau of Meteorology and after two years as a flood forecaster in the Bureau’s Queensland Regional Office, Alan was promoted in 1968 to the position of Senior Engineer in the Water Studies Subsection of the Research and Development Branch of the Bureau’s Head Office in Melbourne. In May 1974, he was appointed Superintendent of Hydrometeorology, and subsequently Superintendent of Hydrology in 1986, after which most of his time was taken up with management matters, mostly activities related to committees of inquiry to which the Bureau had been subject, and various national and state committees. Alan had a particular interest in development work for the Flood Warning Service and took a number of initiatives in computer-based flood-forecasting models and systems. From 1978 the planning and development of the upgrading of the Bureau’s Flood Warning Subsystem was a major project under his direction since its inception in 1978. He provided input to Australian briefs relating to international hydrology and was the main officer in the Bureau dealing with international hydrology from 1974 to 1999. As regards his contacts with WMO, he will recount his experience in the course of this interview. He has acted as consultant to WMO on many occasions and through his work has many colleagues and friends all over the world.

Alan has conducted research work in the following fields: groundwater flow models; flood-forecasting models (rainfall excess, baseflow separation and channel routeing); design storm precipitation patterns and amounts; areal and radar precipitation estimation; application of climate prediction to water resources management; basic water balances (prediction, evaporation and streamflow gridded/basin products); distributed and macroscale hydrological modelling—and more. He is the author of more than 50 publications in the water-resources field for both national and international purposes.

I had seen Alan in Geneva a few times without having the opportunity of meeting him. Those who know him described him to me as a pleasant person, easy to talk to, and always ready to help. I can only confirm these views having conducted this interview.

H.T. — Could you please tell us about the date and place of your birth, your parents and your childhood as well as your elementary and secondary schooling?

A.H. — I was born in Stanmore, an inner Sydney suburb on 2 September 1941. My father was an agricultural scientist, working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), then on food preservation during World War II and later on post-harvest storage. My mother was a primary school teacher. I completed the bulk of my primary schooling and enjoyed a childhood in a then small country town of about 2 000 people at Springwood, some 50 miles west of Sydney. Prior to this I attended Beecroft Primary School in Sydney for a year before we moved to an outer suburb on a seven-acre farm where I attended two primary schools: firstly at Kellyville, which meant a bike ride and a bus trip, and later at Castle Hill, which involved a two-mile bike ride. It was on the farm that I had my first involvement with water and hydrology as my father had dammed a small creek on the property to be used as a duck pond: he raised ducks for market as a weekend sideline and I remember enjoying many roast duck dinners! My activities included cricket, football and tennis, organized at various levels, roaming the bush and gullies, swimming in the creeks and catching yabbies (a type of freshwater crayfish) and bike-riding all around the district—all typical Australian boyhood activities in a country town!

At Katoomba High School in the Blue Mountains, I had my first encounter with snow. The next 3.5 years I spent at Penrith High School, completing the fixed academic stream (English, French, Latin,maths, physics and chemistry) for my Leaving Certificate. During my time there, Warragamba Dam was being built as Sydney’s major water storage. Scouting and visits to school friends gave me the chance to see this large concrete gravity dam construction and civil engineering works. The major floods of 1955 were my first experience of swollen rivers—and the fun of being sent home early from school in case the bridges across the Nepean River were inundated. At the other extreme, I was involved, in my mid-teens, in fighting bushfires with the local volunteer Bushfire Brigade. My last move with my family was back to the suburbs of Sydney for my last term of High School and the completion of my Leaving Certificate.

H.T. — Your academic studies and associated work experience?

A.H. — As I liked building things, billycarts (soap-box carts), model trains and planes and enjoyed helping my father with house modifications, I was drawn to Civil Engineering at the University of New South Wales. This was a new university which started as the University of Technology and had a strong emphasis on practical engineering and links with industry. The course required the 2.5 month summer vacation to be spent as practical work experience. At the end of my first year I worked with the Water Research Foundation of Australia, which was located at the Civil Engineering School headed by Prof. Crawford Munro, an early force in Australian hydrology. The project involved working with John, later Prof. Burton another pioneer in environmental and water management, on the problem of piping failures of farm dams. I enjoyed visiting farms to collect soil samples and setting up rainfall and runoff measuring equipment. My second year work experience was with Horsham City Council in Victoria. It included designing street drainage and introduced me to dry land farming and irrigation in the surrounding districts. During my third year, we studied hydrology—a popular subject well taught by David Pilgrim, who at the time was completing his Ph.D. on the time of concentration of runoff in small experimental catchments using radioactive tracers. The Civil Engineering School had a strong hydrological staff under Prof. Munro, including Eric Laurenson and Bob Learmonth, and led the field of university hydrological research in Australia. Later David and Eric became full professors and significant leaders in Australian hydrology. My third year work experience was with the Shell Oil Company, assisting in supervising the construction of additional oil-storage tanks at their tanker terminal at Gore Bay on Sydney Harbour. Prof. Munro drew my attention to an advertisement for a cadet engineering position with the Water Resources Branch of the NT Administration in Darwin. As I had developed an interest in hydrology by this time, I applied and was successful. During the last year of my Bachelor of Engineering Degree, I undertook additional honours subjects of Structures, Surveying and Hydrodynamics. At the end of my four-year undergraduate course, Prof. Munro suggested I apply for a Teaching Fellowship in the Civil Engineering School and ask my employer for a year’s leave of absence to undertake a full-time Master of Engineering Science Degree in Hydraulics and Hydrology. Despite the heavy workload this was completed with a minor thesis based on a Heleshaw Model of the effects of groundwater pumping and saltwater intrusion in Sydney’s Botany Basin.

H.T.— From 1962 to 1966 you were employed by the Northern Territory Administration in various capacities. Could you please expand on this?

A.H. — To utilize my post-graduate studies in groundwater hydrology I was placed in the Groundwater Section of the NT Water Resources Branch. This proved to be an interesting time as the city of Darwin was beginning to grow and a new groundwater field was being investigated to meet the demand for water. I was in charge of the recently purchased geophysical survey equipment. In addition, the Branch took delivery of a large rotary drilling machine, capable of drilling to 1 000 m, three times the depth of other water bore drilling equipment. I undertook investigation drilling and pump testing for the mining developments at Groote Island and Gove and was in charge of the enhancement of water supplies at a number of coastal aboriginal missions and government stations to which the drilling rig and ancillary equipment were carried by barge. This gave me the opportunity to fly into all of the settlements along the Arnhem Land coast, in addition to those north and west of Darwin and inland in the top half of the Northern Territory. The other tasks were assisting cattle-station owners develop their bores for household and stock supplies and town water supplies. I accompanied geologists as far as the Western Australia border and had the opportunity to travel further west and visit the Ord River irrigation scheme at Kununurra. At that time, Alice Springs in the centre of Australia was dependent on the shallow Town Basin for its water supplies. At the request of the Planning Division, I undertook a study of a combined surface-water storage above the town operated in conjunction with the existing groundwater basin. This conjunctive use study was the first of its kind in Australia and required me to write my first computer program and travel to Canberra to use the CSIRO’s computer, there being no such facilities in Darwin in those early days of computing.

H.T. — Your next employment was with the Bureau of Meteorology. Where were you and what did you do?

A.H. — I decided that Darwin did not offer opportunities for further study and applied for three positions in hydrology. I was offered all three, but took the first with the Bureau of Meteorology at their Queensland Regional Office in Brisbane, where I was the sole engineer involved in flood forecasting. I worked on expanding the flood-forecasting system using simple rainfall-runoff models on the Brisbane River developed by my predecessor, who pioneered the position, and began upgrading the flood forecasting systems in the other Queensland rivers which had been developed over the years by  meteorologists using simple river stage correlations. A major project was the development of the radio telemetry for the Brisbane River. With over 20 sites, this was about five times the size of the first telemetry system introduced by the Bureau in the Macleay River in NSW in the early 1960s.

H.T. — In 1968 you were transferred to the Head Office in Melbourne. You remained there for the next 22 years. What did you do during this period?

A.H. — My position was Senior Engineer in charge of a small team of engineers developing scientific flood forecasting systems and assisting the Bureau’s Regional Offices in their implementation. The rainfall-runoff modelling was based on flood event models and I worked on simple water-balance models which could be adapted to event-based flood forecasting. This led to my initial involvement with WMO  in 1974 in the first Intercomparison of Conceptual Models Used for Flood Forecasting. One of the datasets used was from the Wollombi Brook catchment in the Hunter Valley of NSW and the Bureau’s simple event model was included. This culminated in my first overseas trip to Geneva for a review of the results. This intercomparison was a ground-breaking activity for international hydrology and set the pattern for later intercomparisons of hydrological models and assessing hydrological model effectiveness/efficiency.

At the same time, I worked on a rainfall design problem which I had begun in Brisbane. Current design methods used a block rainfall input to rainfall-runoff model for a given storm duration. Using the Bureau’s developing database of digitized pluviograph data, I developed storm patterns for inclusion in the revised Institution of Engineers’ Australian Rainfall and Runoff Design Manual. Other studies included the comparison of methods of assessing areal rainfall and the use of radar in determining rainfall.

On the departure of Neil Body to CSIRO in 1974, I was appointed Superintendent of Hydrology in charge of the Water Studies Section which comprised Flood Forecasting, Hydrometeorology and Evaporation Groups. The Hydrometeorology Group was involved in developing design rainfall data and the estimation of probable maximum precipitation for the Australian and South-East Asian catchments involving Australian aid and/or Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation projects. The Evaporation Group was responsible for the analysis and reporting on the results of a major Australian Water Resources Council Lake Evaporation Project. Following a review of Bureau services, I oversaw a major upgrading of flood-forecasting services and the establishment of a new Water Resources Group to undertake a national view compared to that of the responsible state-based authorities. At the same time, the Flood Forecasting Group was involved in a move towards event-based radiotelemetry systems, flash flood forecasting systems, automation of rainfall and river-height reporting systems and computer-based systems to handle these. This was largely based on the work of Bob Burnash and his colleagues at the National Weather Service (NWS) River Forecast Center in Sacramento, California.

H.T. — You were then appointed Manager, Operations Planning and Development, Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SMHEA), Cooma, NSW. What did your duties consist of?

A.H. — My main role was the modelling and planning of the SMHEA operations in conjunction with the NSW and Victorian electricity and water agencies and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. This was a complex task involving often competing interests of hydropower generation and irrigation requirements from seven power stations with 31 turbines, one pumping station and 16 major dams linked by 145 km of tunnels and pipelines, most of which were in a national park with environmental problems and flow constraints in the rivers. During this time, I was involved in the preparation of a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Snowy Precipitation Enhancement Project and undertook a review of the potential of cloud seeding over the Snowy Mountains.
 

Alan Hall in Sydney Harbour, Australia, with John Schaake

 
In Sydney Harbour, Australia, with John Schaake, on route to a GEWEX Scientific Steering Group meeting in Melbourne in January 1995

H.T. —How did you come to work for NOAA in the USA?

A.H. — During the ninth session of the Commission for Hydrology (CHy) in Geneva in February 1993, Mike Hudlow told me of the establishment of a group in the Office of Hydrology of the US NWS in Silver Spring, Maryland, to work on the World Climate Research Programme’s Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment (GEWEX) continental-scale experiment over the Mississippi River basin (GCIP). There was a need for someone to help establish and manage the group in conjunction with the Office’s Chief Scientist, John Schaake. This was an opportunity for me to work in another country and to be part of an exciting international project encompassing both hydrology and meteorology. As I had visited the Office on several occasions and knew a number of the people there, I felt comfortable in taking up this challenge and my wife and I left for Washington DC in June 1993. I would also be working with a former Bureau colleague, Mike Coughlan, who was in charge of GEWEX/GCIP funding and promotion in the NOAA Office of Global Programs.

H.T. — What did your work involve?

A.H. — My initial priorities were to recruit staff and to capture and archive the operational data of NWS operations over the Mississippi basin, in particular the large volumes of data coming out of the new NEXRAD radars and the point rainfall data used by the River Forecast Centres, together with streamflow and forecast river flow and height data. I also participated in the work undertaken by John Schaake, Qingyun Duan, and Victor Koren and Ken Mitchell and other meteorologists in the Numerical Center for Environmental Prediction on improving the land-surface parameterization of the NWS’s numerical forecast models. I found this cooperative effort between the two disciplines most interesting and rewarding. In the past, hydrologists had modelled catchments by closing the water balance, and casting most of the modelling errors into evaporation, whereas the atmospheric modellers had concentrated on the energy balance of the atmosphere and used simplistic land surface/hydrology models. The simultaneous closure of the water and energy balance has been a major learning experience for both disciplines and has greatly improved our modelling efforts in both sciences. As far as I know, the NWS pioneered this successful collaboration. I always enjoy visiting new places, if only briefly, and my participation in numerous scientific and data-management meetings across the USA gave me the opportunity to see much of the country. As GEWEX was an expanding international project with the other continental-scale projects coming on line, I was also able to participate at meetings and conferences in Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong (China), Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as the inaugural meeting of the GEWEX Hydrometeorology Panel in Visby, Sweden, in August/September 1995. Again, the opportunity to work with new people tackling the problems of different environments and visiting new places was stimulating.

H.T. — Tell us about your association with the WMO Commission for Hydrology (CHy).

A.H. — The first CHy meeting I attended was its fifth session in Ottawa, Canada, in 1976. It was my first visit to North America and was a special time, as it included a weekend visit to Montreal just before the Olympics and coincided with the US bicentennial celebrations. This meeting was interesting as it was the last meeting of the president, Prof. Popov of the USSR, and the first attendance of a Chinese delegation. It was at this meeting that the US delegation introduced the idea of what was to be later named the Hydrological Operational Multipurpose System (HOMS), a major new initiative in a broad-based technology exchange. I was appointed Rapporteur on Flash Floods and a member of the Working Group on Hydrological Forecasting. Over the four-year intersessional period, I wrote a report on flash flood forecasting and prepared material for the revision of the Guide to Hydrological Practices.

At the sixth session in Madrid in 1980, I was appointed Chairman of the Working Group on Modelling and Simulation, Rapporteur on Online Forecasting and member of the CHy Advisory Working Group. This involved more meetings in Geneva and the chance to use the chairmanship skills I had learned from Gene Peck, Director of the NWS Hydrology Research Laboratory, during my first rapporteurship.

At the seventh session in Geneva in 1984, I was appointed vice-president of CHy, Chairman of the Working Group on Hydrological Models and Forecasting and member of the CHy Advisory Working Group. I had the pleasure of working closely with the president, Ödön Starosolszky1 of Hungary during this intersessional period and the following four years when I was re-elected vice-president of CHy and appointed Chairman of the Working Group on Data Acquisition and Processing Systems and member of the CHy Advisory Working Group.

At the ninth session in 1993, I declined the invitation to stand as president as I had then moved to the SMHEA and was contemplating working in the USA on the GCIP. However, I continued my association with the Commission as Rapporteur on GCIP and Large-scale Hydrological Studies and member of the Working Group on Operational Hydrology, Climate and the Environment. This afforded me the opportunity to promote GEWEX with hydrological agencies. At the tenth session in Koblenz, Germany in 1996, I was appointed CHy Expert on Large-scale Hydrological Studies and member of the Working Group on Applications. This was my last Commission meeting and, after six meetings, I was the second longest consecutive attendee after Hans Liebscher of Germany, who attended his first Commission meeting in South America in 1972. I awarded him the honour of being the patriarch of the Commission!

H.T. — You have also participated in WMO-related activities outside CHy?

A.H. — I also took part in WCP-Water planning meetings and the Review Panel on WCP-Water, acted as a WMO consultant in the Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka on the UNDP HOMS Asia Project and represented WMO’s Hydrology and Water Resources Department at meetings on small island water resources in the South-west Pacific in Fiji and ESCAP meetings in Bangkok on flood management. I returned to Fiji in 1984 to take part in the UN interdisciplinary review team. One of my most interesting and rewarding experiences was my WMO consultancy during 1978/1979 to conduct a roving seminar of two weeks duration in each of six countries in South-East Asia with my co-lecturer Dick Tarble of the USA. The topic of our seminar was intense precipitation and floods from tropical cyclones. Two or three weeks in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal and the Philippines gave me some insight into their cultures and hydrological problems and the chance to aid their flood forecasting programmes. I also lectured at a one-week ESCAP course on flood management in Bangkok in 1980. In 1997 I took over from Gert Schultz as the Chairman of the International Association of Hydrology (IAHS)/WMO Working Group on GEWEX, whose meetings I had attended as an observer from 1993.

H.T. — Let us talk about freshwater, its sources and its uses.

A.H. — About three-fourths of the Earth is covered with water. Yet the estimated volume of freshwater in the rivers, groundwater, snow and ice is only 2.5 per cent; the rest being saltwater. Some 65 per cent of the total freshwater resources are either in the form of ice or permanent snow cover in the Antarctic and Arctic regions. About 30 per cent is stored underground in the form of deep underground aquifers and soil moisture. Consequently, the total usable freshwater supply to ecosystems and humans from rivers, lakes wetland soil moisture and shallow groundwater is less than 1 per cent of all the freshwater and 0.01 per cent of all the water on the Earth. The World Health Organization estimates that only 0.007 per cent of water on Earth is readily available for human consumption, globally. Hence freshwater is a scarce resource in many parts of the world. Human beings are composed of up to 70 per cent water and can not survive without freshwater. Water is a fundamental resource for socio-economic development and for maintaining healthy ecosystems.
 

Alan Hall with K. Hofius, O. Starosolszky and G. Arduino

 
Geneva, January 1993 — Alan Hall with K. Hofius, O. Starosolszky and G. Arduino during the ninth session of the Commission for Hydrology (Photo: John Bassier)

In addition to accessible freshwater in lakes, rivers and aquifers, man-made storage in reservoirs add a further 8 000 km3. Water resources are renewable—with the exception of some groundwater—in different parts of the world, but with wide variations. The main source of water for all human use and for ecosystems is precipitation,which is taken up by plants and soils. It evaporates into the atmosphere via evapotranspiration and runs off to the sea via rivers and lakes and wetlands. Evapotranspiration supports forests, rainfed cultivations, grazing land and ecosystems.

Regarding the use of freshwater, according to the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) in 2003, 70 per cent of freshwater is withdrawn for agriculture, 22 per cent for industry and 8 per cent for domestic use. The main source of the world’s food supply is agriculture, which includes crops, livestock, acquaculture and forestry. Most agriculture is rainfed, but irrigated land accounts for about one-fifth of the total arable area in developing countries. An important source of irrigation water is wastewater, with some 10 per cent of total irrigated land in developing countries using these resources. However, wastewater should receive treatment since raw sewage is a source of infection and disease. Water discharged by industry may be of poor quality and might threaten surface- and groundwater resources. Within industry, water is often used for manufacturing processes, as well as for washing, cooking, etc., and then returned to the local water system.

H.T. — Which freshwater resources are in danger of over exploitation or misuse?

A.H. —While some areas are more fragile than others, it could be argued that all forms of exploitable water are in danger. The main problems are overallocation of water to the detriment of the environment and pollution of the resource. The pollution of surface water in rivers and lakes is the most obvious, as is its overuse. However, groundwater pollution is more insidious and, together with the mining of this resource, presents an often more dangerous situation. The inefficient use of water can be seen in various degrees in most areas. As water becomes more scarce, or the users are forced to pay for its true economic cost, more efforts are made and money is spent on using water efficiently. This can be seen in the introduction of more efficient industrial processes, water re-use and improved irrigation practices, e.g. drip irrigation as against flood irrigation, and the reduction of water transmission losses by piping or the lining of irrigation channels. Over the years, people have used water as a convenient sink for wastes. Some 2 million tonnes per day of waste are disposed of within receiving waters. The pollution has many sources—untreated sewage, chemical discharges, petroleum leaks and spills, the dumping of garbage and other waste products in old mines and pits and agricultural chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides and pesticide residues) that are washed off from farms or seep into groundwater. In many areas, the amount and types of waste discharges have outstripped the environment’s ability to break them down into less harmful elements. Pollution spoils large quantities of water (up to 12 000 km3 worldwide (WWAP, 2003)) which then cannot be used or are for restricted use only. These problems tend to be concentrated near major urban and highly populated areas and the poor are worst affected: some 50 per cent of the population of developing countries are exposed to polluted waters (WWAP, 2003).

H.T. — What is water resources assessment?

A.H. — According to the report prepared and published jointly by WMO and UNESCO, “water resources assessment is the determination of the sources, extent, dependability, and quality of water resources, on which is based an evaluation of the possibilities for their utilization and management”. It is of crucial importance to wise and sustainable management of the world’s water resources for several reasons: (a) the world’s population is increasing, placing increasing demands on water for drinking, food production, sanitation and other basic social and economic needs, but the world water resources are finite; (b) human activities are having an ever growing impact on natural resources, through depletion and pollution; (c) water-related natural hazards—floods, droughts, tropical cyclones—are among the most destructive of human life and property and have been responsible for death and widespread misery of millions during the course of history; (d) there is growing realization that the world’s climate may be changing in response to human activities.
 

Farewell from the Bureau of Meteorology with Neil Stretten

 
Melbourne, Australia, November 1990 — Farewell from the Bureau of Meteorology with Neil Stretten, Deputy Director, Services

Only with reliable data and information on the status and trends of water resources—including quality. quantity, statistics on events such as floods, etc.—can wise decisions be made on how best to manage water. Water resources assessment is therefore a prerequisite for all aspects of water resources development and management.

H.T. — What are the freshwater problems in Australia?

A.H. — Australia is the driest inhabited continent with the most variable climate. It is the oldest of the continents with a weathered landscape, much of which is very flat and underlain by a deeply buried salt inheritance. Our arid climate, ancient and generally shallow soils and evolutionary history are not commensurate with the agricultural management practices which have been imposed by European settlement and farming practices based on wet, fertile landscapes. Within the settled areas of the country, most of the potential dam sites have already been utilized and, in the most settled south-east corner, almost 100 per cent of the water resources are allocated. It is now realized that this is not sustainable and that it is not possible to drought-proof the agricultural sector and in many places to provide urban water without restriction. Many of our water- management strategies have caused great damage to a generally fragile environment, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, which supports most of Australia’s irrigation by diverting 80 per cent of the median flow. By storing winter runoff and using the rivers as irrigation channels in summer, the natural river flow pattern has been reversed. Distribution weirs have turned out to provide the ideal habitat for the environmentally detrimental blue-green algae and introduced carp. This combined with land clearing and overirrigation has led to dryland salinity, declining water quality and the extinction of native species. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that some 17 million hectares of Australia’s farm- and bushland will be at risk from salinity. The 1990s saw action by the Council of Australian Governments to address these issues through a National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality and, in 1997, irrigation licenses were capped in the Murray-Darling Basin to 1993/1994 levels to protect user security. The current severe drought has seen seasonal irrigation allocations cut by up to 90 per cent in some places and the difficult task of cutting back on overallocated water withdrawals is being addressed so that environmental flows can be restored to the river systems.

H.T. — With the unavoidable growth of human population, is there a threat of water scarcity in sight?

A.H. — Water scarcity is already here. There is enough freshwater in the world to support the Earth’s growing population but the problems are its distribution and the distribution of the world’s population and productive agricultural areas. If we could re-design country, state and tribal borders and move populations to available sustainable water resources, we could solve the problem—unfortunately this is not practicable! We have some transfer of water between countries but this is often contentious and difficult to achieve. The transfer of water in the form of food occurs but this does not solve the problems where poverty of a large proportion of the world’s population is both a symptom and a cause of the water crisis. Giving the poor better access to better managed water will greatly assist the eradication of poverty and the reduction of the world’s killer diseases, many of which are waterborne.

H.T. — What do you hope the International Year of Freshwater will achieve?

A.H. —While some countries have, or are developing, the political will and national strategies to address their water-related problems, there is much to be done in achieving sustainable water use. The concern is that the most critical areas are in developing countries, which may not have the political and financial structures to solve their water problems. The Year of Freshwater will highlight the world’s water problems and, hopefully, galvanize the international community and financial and aid structures to address those areas and populations which do not have access to clean water and the means of protecting human health and the environment.

H.T. — What are you doing nowadays?

A.H. — Since returning to Australia at the end of 1996, I have taken early retirement, but have continued my interest in international hydrology programmes through my association with GEWEX as Chairman of the IAHS/WMO Working Group on GEWEX and IAHS Representative on the GEWEX Hydrometeorology Panel. I have continued the work begun with John Schaake and Qingyun Duan during my time at the NWS in promoting the Model Parameter Estimation Experiment (MOPEX) by helping organize workshops, either held separately or at recent IAHS Assemblies. MOPEX is a key aspect of the IAHS Prediction in Ungauged Basins initiative and I have an interest in participating in this and the opportunities offered by satellites in furthering these programmes. As an activity of the GEWEX Water Resources Application Project I have organized workshops on the use of GEWEX products in water-resources applications at the Third International Conference on Water Resources in Dresden, Germany, in 2002 and at the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics meeting in Sapporo, Japan, in July 2003. As with my work in the Commission for Hydrology, my overall aim is to facilitate the development of hydrological products and techniques which can be used by those in need in developing countries.

H.T. — I wish you every success in this endeavour which is of such crucial importance for humankind, especially the populations of developing countries. Thank you for granting me this interview.

  • 1 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 51 (1) [back]

 

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