Water Management & Protection Prize


Dr. Howard S. Wheater Dr. Howard S. Wheater (Imperial College, London)

The integrated and sustainable management of water resources depends firstly on appropriate scientific understanding of the hydrology that determines the availability of surface and groundwater resources, and secondly on the use of appropriate modelling tools to support assessment of water resource sustainability and the development and evaluation of strategies for integrated management.

The ability to manage water resources effectively in arid and semi arid areas has been severely limited by: a) poor knowledge and understanding of the special hydrological characteristics of these areas, and b) the lack of modelling tools to represent these special characteristics adequately.

Professor Wheater has been working for 25 years to improve the understanding of the hydrology of these areas, to develop suitable modelling tools for management, to apply these in practice for improved water resources management, and to disseminate state-of-the-art information to students and practitioners.

Winner Profile

Dr. Howard Wheater obtained a first class degree in Engineering Science from the University of Cambridge and worked for Rolls-Royce as a fluid mechanics specialist before undertaking a PhD in Hydrology at Bristol University and joining the staff of the Civil Engineering Department of Imperial College in 1978.

He holds the appointment of Professor of Hydrology at Imperial College and is Head of the Environmental and Water Resource Engineering Section of the Civil and Environmental Department. He is past-President of the British Hydrological Society, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (London), a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London), and is a life member of the International Water Academy (Oslo).

His research interests are in hydrology and water resources; wide-ranging applications include surface and groundwater hydrology, water resources, water quality and waste management. He has published some 200 refereed papers and 6 books. Academic awards include prizes from the UK Institution of Civil Engineers, the British Hydrological Society and Cambridge University. Invited key-note lectures include the World Water Conference, various invited lectures in the USA and a wide range of international conferences in Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East.

He has a wide international experience of flood, water resource and water quality studies, including work in the Middle East, Far East, Africa and South America, and recently acted as Counsel and Advocate for Hungary at the International Court of Justice, the Hague, concerning the environmental impact of the GNBS Danube Dams.

Professor Wheater has a major interest in the Hydrology of Arid areas and has been working for some 25 years to improve the understanding of the hydrology of these areas, to develop suitable modelling tools for management, to apply these in practice for improved water resources management, and to disseminate state-of-the-art information to students and practitioners.  He has worked in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, as well as Arizona. Previous major projects include the first flood study of Northern Oman, in 1981, the Saudi Arabian Five Wadis Representative Basins study in the late 1980s, and work on recharge management in Oman in the 1990s.  He was involved in the initiation and development of UNESCO’s Wadi Hydrology programme for the Arab Region, and currently co-chairs UNESCO’s global wadi hydrology programme, G-WADI . He was recently invited by the Government of Chile to assist in the development of a centre for Arid Zone water resources for Latin America and the Caribbean, and was invited by the Japanese government to give a key-note address on water scarcity to the 2003 Kyoto World Water conference. He is currently consultant to the State of Nevada concerning safety assessment for a proposed repository for high level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain.

In the UK he has been a member of national Water Resources and Water Boards and member and chair of various Committees and Strategy Panels for the Natural Environment Research Council, including chair of the Programme Development Group on Land and Water Resources Research. He recently initiated a £10 million UK research programme into Lowland Catchment Research (LOCAR) to meet the needs of the EU Water Framework Directive for integrated water resources management. He is an advisor to the UK Government on Flood R&D and on nitrate vulnerability assessment, and member of the government Advisory Panel on Reservoir Safety. He leads a national research programme into land use management impacts on flooding. Other current research includes rainfall simulation under climate change, rainfall-runoff and surface water quality modelling, and flow and transport processes in the subsurface. For the last 18 years he has led an interdisciplinary research team at Imperial focusing on biosphere aspects of risk assessment for the deep disposal of nuclear waste.

Acceptance Speech

Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, colleagues and friends, ladies and gentlemen

It gives me very great pleasure to accept your Royal Highness’ prize for Water Resources Management in Arid and Semi-arid Regions, and particularly to accept the prize in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and in your Highness’ presence.

My experience of working on the hydrology and water resources of arid areas began in the Arabian peninsular 25 years ago, when I undertook the first Flood Study of the Sultanate of Oman. As a young man, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and courteousness of the people of Arabia, and the beauty of the landscape, and excited by the scientific and technical challenges I encountered. Water is at its most precious in an arid environment, yet the science and practice of Hydrology is challenged – by the extreme variability of rainfall and flows, the consequent needs for high quality data records in an environment which is hostile to instrumentation, and by the need for an improved scientific understanding of wadi systems and their ancient history of management. Only then may we support effective and sustainable management under today’s pressures of economic development, land use and climate change.

Given these challenges, it was a great privilege, and my good fortune, to be invited a few years later to participate in a truly world-leading study in the South West of Saudi Arabia: the Five Wadis Representative Basins Study. This was a far-sighted initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, which provided the support for detailed monitoring of 5 wadis with dense raingauge and flow monitoring networks, plus climate, soil moisture and groundwater data, and full-time resident teams of field observers. With the guidance of colleagues such as Professor Abdulaziz Al-Turbak, and collaboration with other Saudi academics and researchers, this study provided important new insights into the response of wadi systems in Arabia, and provided the first comprehensive scientific research effort in wadi hydrology in the Arab Region. The project also introduced me to the warmth of the Saudi people and again, to the beauty of the Arabian landscape.

This experience provided me with a scientific lesson that has been influential throughout my career in Hydrology and in various parts of the world. Indeed this year has seen the completion of a similar 5 year £10 million intensive study I initiated of 3 river basins in the (in the UK context!) semi-arid regions of South East England. Once again this has provided invaluable new scientific insights and new tools for water resources management.

I have also been fortunate to work with UNESCO over many years, helping to promote improved understanding of the hydrology of arid regions and the sharing of experience in water resources management, first through the establishment of a Wadi Hydrology network for the Arab Region, and most recently, a global initiative, G-WADI. Despite limited resources, this initiative has used the power of the internet to reach out to centres and individuals worldwide to share knowledge, experience and the state-of-the-art developments in data and modelling that will support improved management of scarce resources and the protection of fragile ecosystems.

To conclude, my experience of the arid zones of the world has led me to work in some of the most beautiful parts of the globe and to understand a little of the traditional values of the people of the desert. Many of my richest personal experiences are associated with working in the deserts of Arabia – in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf States. In addition I have learned important scientific lessons, and have had the opportunity, with UNESCO’s support, to share these with students and practitioners worldwide.

Your Royal Highness, it has been a far-sighted and most generous initiative to establish this important International Water Prize, and hence to reinforce the central importance of water in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world, and to encourage research and innovation in this area. I am extremely fortunate that my scientific peers have been so kind as to recommend me for this Prize. It is a great honour, which I most gratefully accept.

Winning Work


Northern Oman Flood Study
In 1981, Professor Wheater undertook the first Flood Study of Northern Oman for the government of the Sultanate of Oman, responding to a flood emergency. He collated the available data on rainfall and flows, and produced analyses of rainfall depth-duration-frequency relationships that were subsequently used as the basis of hydrological design for the following 15-20 years. He also introduced, for the first time in the Arab region, the use of distributed, physically-based modelling of rainfall-runoff processes. As part of his work, he designed flood protection for various strategic installations in Oman, including the Royal Palace in Muscat. His paper, published in the Proceedings of the UK Institution of Civil Engineers, won national recognition and was awarded the ICE Overseas Premium.

A Multivariate Spatial-Temporal Model of Rainfall in S. W. Saudi Arabia
Professor Wheater was appointed as consultant scientific adviser to a pioneering water resources study of five basins in S.W. Saudi Arabia, undertaken on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The single most important element in water resources assessment is the precipitation input, and the uniquely-dense monitoring networks of this study allowed, for the first time, the quantitative characterisation of the extreme spatial variability of rainfall in the region. Professor Wheater has published a number of papers on various aspects of rainfall in Saudi Arabia. In this one, the basic characteristics are quantified, and a new approach to modelling spatial variability of rainfall for water resources assessment was pioneered.

Effects of Wadi Flood Hydrograph Characteristics on Infiltration
A key issue for the integrated management of surface and groundwater resources in arid and semi arid areas is the recharge of alluvial groundwater from ephemeral surface flows in wadi channels. Building on his Saudi Arabian five wadis project experience, Prof. Wheater developed some of the first two-dimensional numerical models of unsaturated/saturated subsurface flow and applied them for the first time to the problem of estimation of groundwater recharge from flash floods. This paper is one of several he published in the international literature on this subject, and these analyses provided important new insights into the effects of heterogeneous subsurface properties on the infiltration process, and the associated feedbacks that can strongly influence the process of transmission loss in surface flows.

A Water Resources Simulation Model for Groundwater Recharge Studies
Professor Wheater returned to the Sultanate of Oman to work on the sustainable and  integrated management of water resources in Wadi Ghulaji. The Sultanate of Oman had been pioneering the use of recharge dams to enhance groundwater recharge and hence the sustainable yield from groundwater resources. However, most applications has been to relatively simple systems on the Batinah coastal plain. In contrast, Wadi Ghulaji was an interior basin with complex hydrogeology and a well-developed afalaj system and associated system of water rights and water allocation. It was clear that a new modelling approach was needed to met the difficult challenge of defining sustainable use and the potential for enhanced recharge through recharge dam construction. Professor Wheater developed a pioneering new modelling approach. This a) represented the complex spatial structure of rainfall using a specially designed rainfall simulator, b) represented the spatial complexity of runoff generation using a spatially-distributed rainfall-runoff model, and c) represented the spatially-distributed contributions to groundwater recharge from rainfall infiltration and the focussed recharge from infiltration of wadi flows. The model was successfully used to explore the potential of recharge dams in a variety of locations, and the sustainability of yield from alternative climate sequences.

Hydrological Modelling in Arid and Semi-Arid Areas
The final work presented is an early product of a UNESCO initiative, G-WADI (Global network for Water and Development Information in arid lands). Professor Wheater has been co-chair of G-WADI, working as part of a small team to develop the G-WADI concept and secure funding from UNESCO and the UK Government. G-WADI recognises the importance of integrated and sustainable management of water resources in arid and semi arid areas, and has identified the need for access to state-of-the-art information on science and modelling tools for arid areas from institutions and individuals world-wide. G-WADI has therefore developed a global information system, based on the web-site www.g-wadi.org, and has identified needs for specialist information and support in key areas. Professor Wheater convened a Workhop in which the world’s leading authorities on hydrological modlling in arid and semi arid areas came together, with an invited audience, in Roorkee, India, and presented state-of-the-art lectures, tutorials and software instruction. This material is available on the G-WADI web-site, and will be published as a book by Cambridge University Press in 2007.

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