Interview with Ödön Starosolszky
Dr Taba recounts:
Budapest is a beautiful city, located on the Danube. It acquired the name Budapest in 1873, when the communities of Pest (on the left side of the Danube), Buda (on the right bank), and Óbuda (old Buda) to the north were amalgamated. Budapest is a cultural, scientific and artistic centre; almost all the activities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences are conducted there.
After these introductory remarks, I had better get to the point of saying why I went to Budapest. The reason was not a tourist’s visit; it was to find our interviewee of this issue.
Ödön Starosolszky was born in Veszprém in Transdanubia in Hungary on 26 December 1931. He finished his primary studies in a Roman Catholic school in 1942 and completed his secondary education in 1950. The same year, he enrolled in the Faculty of Civil Engineering, Technical University of Budapest, and, for the next four years, his interest centred mainly on water management and hydraulic engineering. He had always been interested in foreign languages and learned German, Romanian, English and Russian. As part of his studies, he prepared a paper related to water-supply and canalization problems for a city of 25 000 inhabitants. He was fortunate to have the likes of J. Bogárdi, W. Lászlóffy and E. Mosonyi as his professors.
After World War II, normal life was difficult; his family had lost all its possessions, as did many others. There was hardly any innovation or progress in any field. The university curriculum was standardized and hard, consisting of some 50 hours of lectures a week and including an obligatory six months of military service. There were no possibilities for postgraduate studies. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences had adopted the Soviet classification system, which consisted of the Candidate of Science (C.Sc.) and Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) degrees. In 1963, Ödön registered for a C.Sc. degree, which he obtained in 1968. The door to academic life and further studies and research, as well as other scientific degrees, had opened to him.
For most of his professional life, Ödön Starosolszky worked at the Water Resources Research Centre (VITUKI) in Budapest, mainly in research or education and training or often both. He was the Director of the Institute for Hydraulic Engineering of VITUKI from 1976 to 1989. The Institute then had 80 employees, including 40 graduates, and was responsible for the improvement of hydraulic and hydrological measuring techniques, using numerical methods as well as field and laboratory measurements. He was appointed Deputy Director-General in 1989 and Director-General in 1991. By that time, the total number of employees of VITUKI had grown to 240. After his retirement in 1999, he continued to work as a part-time research scientist.
Starosolszky was ever an active researcher, his work covering many areas in the domains of hydraulics and hydrological engineering. As the person responsible for nationwide research at the National Water Authority (NWA) of Hungary, he took steps to improve the hydrological network and the planning of research projects. He was the Chairman of the Committee on Water Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for six years before becoming its president in 1997.
Besides active research, Ödön was engaged in under- and postgraduate education at Hungarian universities. He was lecturer in several international postgraduate courses in Hungary sponsored by UNESCO and tutor for many students, in particular from developing countries, and supervised their theses.
Starosolszky is a well-known figure in international organizations such as WMO, UNESCO, the International Association of Hydraulic Research (IAHR), the International Association for Hydrological Sciences (IAHS) and the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID). He was rapporteur and chairman of many meetings, was a UN/UNDP and WMO consultant in several developing countries and has visited, on official duty, more than 40 countries in five continents. He was a member of the Advisory Working Group of the WMO Commission for Hydrology (CHy) in 1972 and later on became vice-president and then president of CHy.
Starosolszky is a prolific scientist. He has published more than 200 technical and scientific papers, of which some 80 have been translated and published abroad. Several are major works and manuals related to hydraulic engineering, applied surface hydrology, standardization of measurements, etc. He has received several medals, awards and prizes in recognition of his services to hydrology, both nationally and internationally. In 2000, he received the Széchenyi Prize, the highest award for technical-scientific activities.
Ödön Starosolszky is a fatherly figure; kind, considerate and helpful.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank Dr Péter Bakonyi, the present Director-General of VITUKI, who helped me with this interview, both by providing the background information and by making available VITUKI’s facilities.
While in Hungary, I contacted Dr Rudolf Czelnai. Readers may recall that Dr Czelnai was the Permanent Representative of Hungary with WMO and also president of WMO Regional Association VI (Europe). From 1985 until his retirement in 1992, he was Assistant Secretary-General at the WMO Secretariat in Geneva.
Dr Czelnai and his wife Katy live in an ancient farmhouse in a small village of 300 inhabitants, but no fewer than seven churches, situated on Lake Balaton. When they acquired the house a few years ago, it was in a deplorable state and the renovation process, though not yet finished, has achieved wonders. It was a pleasure to spend the day with them.
This interview took place in Budapest in September 2001.
H.T. — Would you first of all give us some details about VITUKI?
Several senior staff of the Centre hold leading posts in the international scientific organizations or have worked as experts for UNDP, UNESCO, WMO and WHO all over the world.
In the field of research, VITUKI has long experiences in design, management and implementation of national and international projects. This is mainly thanks to the availability of highly skilled and experienced personnel in different fields of water problems. VITUKI was founded in 1952 with the aim of carrying out basic and applied research on the development, conservation and sound management of water resources in the country. It has emerged as one of the most complex water-oriented, full-service, professional organizations in Europe. It is integrated with the Hungarian Hydrographic Service established in 1886 and is supported by hydraulic, hydromachinery, hydrochemical, hydrobiological, waste-water technological and mechanical laboratories.
H.T. — Can you outline the infrastructure of VITUKI?
Ö.S. — At present, there are 230 employees in the Centre, 80 of them qualified specialists. They include civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers, geologists, biologists, mathematicians, geophysicists and agronomists. Close contact with other specialized and scientific institutes in Hungary enables the Centre to organize multidisciplinary teams for particular projects. A comprehensive range of research, consulting and engineering services are offered through its Institutes for Hydrology, Hydraulic Engineering and Water Pollution Control.
All matters related to surveys on various types of surface- and groundwater observations, the gauging network, planning for surface- and groundwater monitoring, etc., are dealt with by the Institute for Hydrology. Models and their prototypes on rivers and lakes, surveillance of existing structures, design and field experiments and tests of hydraulic machines fall within the domain of responsibility of the Institute for Hydraulic Engineering. Finally, the Institute for Water Pollution Control is in charge of quality surveys, sampling programmes, toxicological and hydrobiological analysis, environmental baseline surveys, national water quality, etc.
There is a comprehensive supporting service at the disposal of the three institutes, including soil mechanical exploration, licensing products, library and documentation, organization of training courses and conferences and study tours. These services can be provided by short-term assignments of individual experts or, when necessary, by comprehensive project implementations.
H.T. — What was your first employment?
Ö.S. — My first employment was after my undergraduate studies in 1954 at the Water Resources Institute. For two years I worked under Prof. W. Lászlóffy investigating the hydrology of the storage, the survey of the storage reservoirs and the measurement of flow. During this time, we had two flood periods, one in July 1954 and the other in March 1956. Both events were extremely useful for our study and research work, in particular the 1956 ice flood on two stretches of the River Danube downstream of Budapest. In addition to the normal university curriculum, we were engaged in groundwater studies and their applications on the Danube; this part of our work was carried out in conjunction with the Gabcikovo hydropower scheme. In 1958, a new section was opened in VITUKI with focus on field measurements at hydraulic structures, in particular the new projects, such as the Tisza Barrage and storage reservoirs. The person responsible for this new section was the Deputy-Director of VITUKI. During this period, I published several papers in Hungarian and other languages. I also wrote some books on hydrometry and monitoring, as well as others on the occasion of international events and visits to, for example, Austria, France, Switzerland and the 1960 Congress of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. Incidentally, my first study tour dates back to the 1960s.
H.T. — In 1971, you were appointed Head of the Department of Hydraulic Research of the NWA. Could you please describe some of your responsibilities?
Ö.S. — Part of our work was related to studies of the methodology of the survey and measurement of the hydraulic stability of hydraulic structures. We carried out several field measurements. The study of the stability criteria based on the time-series of the observed data became a normal procedure. Experiences with Hungarian dams have been very useful for measuring the hydraulic stability. As Head of this Department, I was also responsible for both basic and applied research, in other words, long-term research taking into consideration the important issue of environmental protection. Under the umbrella of basic research, our activities were mainly theoretical and scientific; our work under applied research pertained mainly to the field of water management. An important step taken to achieve this aim was the development and monitoring of a suitable and adequate network in the country in order to enable us to collect and study hydrological data. In carrying out this task, we were conscious of the work done at the international level by various groups and in particular those of CHy.
In 1974, the NWA promoted me to the position of Head of the Department of Water Resources and Environment, where I remained until 1976. I must mention here that the NWA supervised the Hydrological Service of Hungary. It was responsible for several projects of a long-term nature, involving research based on data gathered over 100 years by the Hungarian Hydrological Service. The 100th anniversary of the Hydrological Service was celebrated in 1986, together with the Scientific Assembly of IAHS, which took place in Budapest.
H.T. — You went back to VITUKI?
During the next seven years, when I was Director-General, I was the main researcher at the Centre. One of our responsibilities was to develop research plans and establish research projects. At this stage, there was a reduction of staff from 300 to 200 employees, among whom there were some 80 graduates. Another change was the creation of two new units: VITUKI-Consult and VITUKI-Innosystem.
At the beginning of my appointment, I had no Deputy Director-General but fortunately, in 1996, Dr P. Bakonyi was designated as my Deputy. We worked together until my retirement in 1999, and Dr Bakonyi took over.
H.T. — You must have been involved in the activities of international organizations whose activities were related to hydrological water resources?
Ö.S. — Very much so, both governmental and non-governmental organizations such as the IAHR, the IAHS, the ICID and the International Water Association. For example, I am an honorary member of IAHR. I was its past vice-president and the past chairman of the Section on Ice Problems. I have attended at least 10 congresses of IAHR and four congresses of IAHS, as well as ICID. I was also the representative of IAHR at several meetings and played an important role in preparing and editing their publications.
My contacts with UNESCO were often related to the activities of their council meetings, as well as the International Hydrological Decade and the International Hydrology Programme (IHP) in Paris. I contributed to several publications on the quantitative aspects of surface water and changes in the hydrological regime in relation to the protection of the environment. I participated in meetings on the assessment of water resources and accidental water pollution and attended the joint conference of UNESCO-IHP. Lastly, I played an important role in contributing to the reports and publications of all these meetings, in particular the IHP.
H.T. — You must have contributed to education and training both in your country as well as abroad. Can you expand on this?
Ö.S. — During my professional life, I have always tried to combine training and research in order to use the experience from one field in another. I started teaching hydrology and hydraulics on a regular basis in the early 1960s. As of 1966, I was more or less a permanent lecturer at the international courses on hydrology organized by VITUKI. As regards my teaching activities outside my country, I wish to mention NATO workshops and courses in various parts of Europe. Another example was the flood defence course in Erice (Italy), Visegrád (Hungary) and Tucson (Arizona, USA). In this context, I should perhaps mention my various missions to developing countries, among others: Egypt, India, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. My major duty was to assist the countries in developing discharge measurements, organizing their hydrological network or improving the existing national network. I spent considerable time making network surveys. In India, in 1981, I worked for the Central Water Commission, concentrating on the Yamuna River basin. Again, in 1982 and 1983, I visited many hydrological observing stations on the Upper Yamuna River to conduct discharge measurements, including telemetering. When I visited Egypt in 1984, my mission concentrated on flow measurements in the hydraulic laboratory, as well as on the site of the delta barrage. My recommendations laid emphasis on the calibration of hydraulic structures. During one mission in 1986 to the hydraulic laboratory in Pune, India, I delivered special lectures for the course of flow measurements under difficult conditions.
My missions were of one-month’s duration, on average. The reports of the missions were nearly always classified as confidential. All the missions had an element of training, since, in improving an existing infrastructure or creating new ones, you always teach and learn.
As regards future education and training activities, I believe CHy and the WMO Secretariat should further develop the following actions: preparation of state-of-the-art standard sets of instruments; and the development of training material, as well as of approaches and methods for communication between NHSs and the general public.
H.T. — Let us talk about your contacts with WMO and in particular with the WMO Hydrology and Water Resources Programme.
Ö.S. — My contacts with WMO pertain to the WMO Hydrology and Water Resources Programme almost exclusively. They started almost 30 years ago, in 1972, when I represented Hungary at the fourth session of CHy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and continued until the tenth session in Koblenz, Germany, in 1996. I was a member of the Advisory Working Group of the Commission (1972), then vice-president (1980-1984) and finally president (1984-1992). During that period, however, I assumed other duties as well, such as those of WMO Rapporteur on Intercomparison of Principal Hydrometric Instruments (1972-1976); on Sediment Transport (1976-1980); on Accuracy of Hydrological Measurements (1980-1984); and as Chairman of the Working Group on Hydrological Instruments and Methods of Observation (1976-1984).
My predecessors— that is to say the previous presidents of the Commission, namely Max Kohler*, Eugene Popov and R.H. Clark—were excellent specialists in the field of hydrology and water resources. Their legacy encouraged me to follow in their footsteps. The Commission’s activities had—and, I am sure, still have—great impacts on the planning and development of the Hydrology and Water Resources Programme in WMO Member countries. In spite of all the efforts of my predecessors and my successor, there are still expectations, which could not be achieved but let us hope that the Commission will make fundamental contributions in the future.
My review would be incomplete without a reference to the experts of the WMO Hydrology and Water Resources Department—I shall just mention here J. Nemec, J. Rodda, D. Kraemer and A. Askew—who have made such excellent contributions to the world of hydrology.
H.T. — Could you mention some of the important issues dealt with during your presidency?
We amended the Technical Regulations; a new edition of the Guide to Hydrological Practices was published. The Guide to Hydrological Practices, the recipe book for hydrologists, published in 1981 in its fourth edition, was completely revised through the efforts of 50 authors and an extensive editorial process. The fifth edition, published in 1993, included many scientific and technological advances. It discusses a wide range of hydrological models and also deals with urban water resources. Standardization was another important issue highly necessary to ensure consistency of instruments, practices and procedures from one nation to another. Volume III of the WMO Technical Regulations deals with hydrology. The WMO Long-term Plan includes four-year periods enabling WMO’s participation in different meetings organized by other water-oriented bodies. One of the most important events was the UN Conference on Water and the Environment held in Dublin in1992. This was a major important milestone in WMO water-oriented programmes.
H.T. — What role did the CHy play in investigating climate variability and change?
Ö.S. — Water resources are very vulnerable to climate variations and possible changes. CHy has a Working Group on Operational Hydrology, Climate and Environment. In some countries, records of river flows and other hydrological variables already exist, which extend back 100 years or even more. The analysis of these records offers a means of detecting phenomena necessary for the study of climate change and one of the projects within WCP-Water focuses on this topic. Work started in 1988 and more than 200 records of 30 to 200 years were used from around the globe. The outcome showed that, in some parts of the world, patterns of river flow had changed. In other parts, there was no change. Perhaps the most important discovery was the fact that there were much larger variations in the records than could have occurred by chance. In 1992, a workshop was held in the WMO Secretariat, at which the conclusions of the above-mentioned analysis, as well as plans for the next stage of study, were discussed.
WMO has successfully executed a number of projects to assist some Services to meet their responsibility in hydrology and water resources. In one such project, encouraged by the World Bank, WMO was planning the first component of a World Hydrological Cycle Observing System (WHYCOS) to be set up in Africa in order to support Hydrological Services in maintaining some 100 stations at key sites where hydrological, climatological and other environmental variables would be monitored. I understand that WHYCOS continues to generate considerable interest in the hydrological community around the world. In particular, the level of cooperation that has already been achieved has been greatly appreciated.
H.T. — Let us turn now to some general questions and remarks. At present, where or what are the global water problems?
It is easily seen that only a small quantity can be exploitable. Human activities modify the hydrological cycle and also pollute available water. Removal of trees and vegetation cover, expansion of buildings, construction of dams, irrigation and drainage and many other human activities change the hydrological cycle. To investigate the real repercussions of these activities, we require detailed data from various locations. Water-resources assessment provides the basis for such investigation. To answer your question, one can say population growth is perhaps the major factor in creating a crisis of running-out of water.
H.T. — Is water shortage an imminent threat?
Ö.S. — Global demand for water is rising. It has risen six to seven times from 1900 to 1995, that is to say more than double the rate of population growth. This rise will certainly accelerate in the future, since the world population is estimated to reach 8.3 billion by the year 2025 and 10-12 billion by 2050. Among all human activities, agriculture takes more than 80 per cent—most of it for irrigation. Other important users of water are industry, energy production and domestic use. We have much less precise information on water use than water resources and the main reason for that is lack of data and measurements in many countries. Of course, increasing demands for water are causing water-resource problems in many parts of the world. When rivers lose excessive quantities of water, their flow decreases downstream and, consequently, lakes shrink. During dry periods, water levels in some aquifers drop because of over-pumping. This in turn can result in land subsidence. If more water is pumped out from aquifers than is being replaced by the natural recharge from precipitation and meltwaters, you can imagine the consequences.
Much of the water abstracted from surface- and groundwater sources for human activities is wasted or even used inefficiently. For example, in irrigation, about 60 per cent of the water seeps from the channels of the distribution systems and is lost by evaporation from the bare soil between the crops. Seepage also causes water logging and salinization, resulting in a significant reduction in crop yield. Erosion of rainfed croplands is also the consequence of poor water management. For many decades, people have used streams and rivers as a convenient place to dump waste. This is an increasing problem, since, everywhere in the world, cities are swelling and industrial activities expanding. In many places, untreated sewage finds its way into the nearest water course.
To answer your question as to whether the threat of great water shortage is imminent, all I can say is: let us hope it is not.
H.T — In what way does hydrological information contribute to sustainable development?
Ö.S. — If you look through historical records, you see that hydrological information has been used for thousands of years. For example, in ancient Egypt, flood heights were measured in order to prepare planting patterns for various crops. Human beings have always survived and developed along waterways and, because of this dependency, it became necessary for them to collect information on water flow, level, quality, supply, navigation, etc. Hydrological information, therefore, became increasingly important and there are many ways of using it to ensure sustainable development. The most urgent one is to reduce water pollution to protect wildlife and biodiversity. Other measures include improving efficiency and reducing demand. An effective programme of data collection is a prerequisite for any planning for water management. For flood forecasting, hydrological information is the most important tool. During the last decade, there were at least 22 major flood events with total financial damage of US$ 1 billion and the loss of 1 000 lives. Some of this damage is due to human interference, such as change in land use, deforestation and as a consequence of climate change. In 1997, there were floods all over the world: in Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and the USA. The collection, analysis and distribution of hydrological information are the most vital duty of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services. These organizations render valuable services, including protecting people’s property, assessing the quantity and quality of available water, the planning and design of water projects, and their economic and social impacts.
H.T. — Could you tell us about one or two of your most unforgettable memories of your professional life?
Ö.S. — During my 50 years’ association with the Hungarian water management, I have witnessed many memorable events. Nearly all of them pertain to floods. The first one was the story of the Danube floods of 1954-1956. A new graduate with little experience in practical work, I was in the flood forecasting unit and was sent to the city of Györ. We arrived at the office of the mayor of the city, who was expecting some real experts and not fresh graduates. Our task was to assist the municipal staff to fight the flood. Other participants were members of the fire brigade whose duty was to regulate the water level by opening or closing the culverts and manoeuvring the shafts. Somehow, they made the wrong manoeuvre and the consequences were the opposite of what was expected. I noticed how important was the question of supervision and coordination of efforts in such operations, requiring careful planning, control and execution. Sometimes, a trivial matter such as breakfast for the workmen, if overlooked, can hamper proper operations. I learned that discipline was a prerequisite.
Another event was associated with the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. In 1987, WMO Congress decided that the Organization should be able to provide meteorological and hydrological information on a possible transboundary flow of hazardous materials. CHy called upon its members to make contributions in this vital area and, in response to this request, I visited the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in March 1988. The outcome of our discussions was that WMO would prepare a manual on the hydrological aspects of the accidental pollution of water bodies. For this task, expert meetings were organized in Kiev in 1989 and in Vienna in 1990. The result was the publication of a very useful report providing guidance to Hydrological Services and Water Authorities. The most comprehensive study deals with the radioactive contamination of water bodies following the Chernobyl nuclear accident which was prepared by the experts. I consider this an important event of my career, since I participated in a joint effort by experts from Germany, Hungary, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA.
H.T. — Dr Starosolszky, you and I have seen each other in the WMO Secretariat for many years. We have exchanged brief remarks, shaken hands and gone our separate ways. This interview has been the opportunity to get to know you—and your professional life—better. It has enabled me to see the knowledgeable and hardworking person that you are and whom it is impossible not to admire—and it has been a pleasure.