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  Water is life, sanitation is dignity

The founding of the Hydrological Research Institute: Recollections and Reflections

Joan Whitmore by John Cox 1977 Unveiling of HRI plaque, 1972

Speech delivered on the occasion of the Institute's 21st anniversary in 1993 by Joan S. Whitmore [1922-2002]
(Joan Whitmore was the first director, 1970-1977)

Against the tranquil backdrop of Roodeplaat Dam and the surrounding hills, the Hydrological Research Institute was the scene of unusual animation, activity and anticipation on 20th October 1972 in preparation for the official opening ceremony that afternoon. In front of the building the Public Works Department had erected a sturdy platform decked with the Department of Water Affair's logo and set out lorry loads of chairs. It also brought masses of colourful pot-plants with which to decorate the foyer, the corridors and main offices. Opening of the HRI 1972-10-20 The commemorative plaque was mounted at the entrance, and I duly checked that when the Minister pulled the cord to unveil it, the velvet curtain would slide back smoothly. Meanwhile the staff mounted exhibits and posters, and prepared the refreshments. We'd thought of every contingency except one, the unusual heat - but in answer to an urgent appeal at the Minister's behest, a Coca Cola van raced up an hour before the proceedings commenced, with a load of red and white sun umbrellas. Then a stream of cars arrived, bringing representatives of many Departments and organizations with an interest in water. The guests sought shelter under the sun umbrellas and the Ministerial party mounted the platform, the ladies wearing hats and gloves as befitted those times and the formality of the occasion. The Rev. WB Jansen opened the proceedings with scripture reading and prayer, whereupon I, as the Director of the Institute welcomed the guests. The Secretary for Water Affairs, Mr JP Kriel, introduced the Minister, the Hon. SP (Fanie) Botha who, after delivering an address, unveiled the plaque, whereupon the Chief of Scientific Services, Dr PW de Lange, thanked one and all. The staff then conducted the guests on a tour of the Institute and served them refreshments.

And now I should like to tell you how all this began, and why.

As you all well know, it is because South Africa's water supplies are at best undependable, and at worst grossly inadequate, that they are infinitely more precious than our much vaunted gold -- for they are vital not only to all sectors of our economy but to our very survival and that of every plant and creature. Small wonder therefor that South Africa has a long and creditable history of water research and development. I recall hearing vivid accounts by the late Dr M S du Toit, an eminent soil scientist who later became Secretary for Agriculture, of his arduous trips by donkey cart and mule wagon to lay out the Olifants River and other early irrigation schemes in the western Cape Province. In another sphere the late Prof. CL Wicht put forest hydrology on the world map with his catchment experiments at Jonkershoek on the effects of afforestation and forest management on stream flow, in which he was a pioneer in the statistical design and evaluation of controlled catchment Experiments. We can also look back with admiration on the construction, largely by manual labour, of the Vaal-Hartz Irrigation Scheme, a major scheme by any standards, which was undertaken primarily to give employment to many of those hit by the great depression of the early '30's. That the entire scheme was completed without provision of drainage canals for the return flow was certainly an oversight but one which could be remedied later and which did not detract from the magnitude of the achievement at a time of acute economic recession. And later came bold and imaginative schemes in yet another sphere, that of large-scale transfer of surplus water from some catchments to make good deficiencies in others, the Tugela-Vaal and Orange-Fish being two major examples. And when the need arose to start thinking of desalinating and reusing water, Dr Stander of the CSIR earned world recognition.

It seems to me that during the first 60 years of this century we relied more on the vision, initiative and drive of gifted individuals, than on the corporate style of management via a plethora of committees, which is so prevalent today

The years following World War II saw an explosive proliferation of research on the occurrence and use of water in many State Departments and Universities. Thus the Weather Bureau not only expanded its rain gauge network but also moved towards greater automation. The Department of Agriculture intensified its research on not only the chemical but also the physical (especially moisture) characteristics of soil types, also on crop water requirements and water use efficiency in relation to planting date and density, fertilizer treatment and other variables, and on irrigation scheduling. The Departments of Agriculture and of Forestry as well as various universities increased the number of controlled catchment experiments (often maintaining independent flow-gauging and weather stations). The Department of Water Affairs likewise expanded its network of hydrometric stations, gradually substituting automatic recorders for visual observations: it also maintained a network of rainfall and evaporation stations independently of the Weather Bureau, and like the Geological Survey also operated a network of groundwater stations.

The foregoing indicates that although there was much activity across a broad spectrum of hydrological research, it was fragmented. Not only was there considerable overlap and duplication of effort (and expenditure) but some fields of research suffered neglect, and there was undue competition for scarce staff and funding.

An interdepartmental commission appointed to address these problems recognized the need for specialised research to continue in various departments but recommended:

(a) the appointment of an Interdepartmental Coordinating Committee for Hydrological Research

(b) the creation of a focal point in the form of a central Division of Hydrological Research within an existing department, to give a lead and impetus to hydrological research as a whole, to initiate new research, amplify work already in progress and eliminate gaps in the field.

The merits of attaching that new division to the Department of Water Affairs (then the Department of Irrigation) are debatable, firstly because the department had not itself felt the need for such a division which was virtually foisted upon it, and secondly because the department was not research-oriented, its main function having been to construct and administer dams, and thirdly because it had only engineers, not scientists on its professional staff. Be that as it may, the new division of Hydrological Research was established in 1958, with a departmental engineer, Mr TC Menne as its Director, and another engineer, Mr JP Kriel, as one of the two Assistant Directors, the other members of the nucleus of staff being drawn from other departments such as the Department of Mines (Dr J Enslin), Transport (Mr K Harvey) and Agriculture (myself).

For all that the Interdepartmental Commission had recommended the creation of a Division of Hydrological RESEARCH, the Commission had failed to make any mention of research facilities. All we had to work with were the valuable accumulated hydrometric records of stream flow, dams and boreholes. A lot could be extracted from them, my first breakthrough coming when I could prove by covariance and other statistical techniques that the reduced inflow into certain dams and the increasingly frequent need to cut water quotas was not due solely to drought as had been assumed but to the effects on runoff of changed land management upstream in the catchments. Initially, though not for long, scientists and engineers were paid the same salary, and so were men and women on the professional staff. This gave us an edge in recruitment over other departments, enabling us to recruit staff in droves only to lose them again in droves a few months later for lack of research facilities. After losing much sleep over this problem the light dawned at 3:00 one morning: Of course we needed to build a research institute, big enough to accommodate the many facets of hydrological research needing attention, and the best of its kind in the world!! A simple and obvious solution - but how to set about it?

As a newcomer, relatively junior, a non-engineer, and the only woman on the professional staff, the odds were weighted heavily against me. Instinctively I knew that if I followed the prescribed "bottom-up" approach I probably wouldn't get more than two rungs up the hierarchical ladder of consent before the scheme would be firmly, finally and irrevocably quashed. So with a blend of zealous and unquenchable fervour and naivety I decided that my only workable option was to start at the top and try to secure the approval of the head of the department, Mr JM Jordaan, for my idea. Knowing that he came to office at 7:00 in the morning I was already waiting in the anteroom when he arrived. I put my case, and five minutes later floated out on a cloud of jubilation, having obtained his enthusiastic approval in principle. "I can already see the name over the gate" he said. And that's when my troubles began in earnest, for naturally I had antagonised many people in the Department by going over their heads. But I was not unduly conscience-stricken, having acted not out of self-interest but from the utter conviction that the Department and the country truly and urgently, Needed a research institute -- but paid the penalty in the form of six lonely years of fighting for that conviction. I wrote countless submission and memoranda based on solid facts and arguments -- but not neglecting to add on occasion that the head of the Department supported the idea. Within the Department I had to convince the Staff Committee, the Planning Committee, the Finance Committee and several others, not to mention the Interdepartmental Co-ordinating Committee for Hydrological Research, the Public Service Commission, the Treasury, the Public Works Department, and so on. Such was the opposition I sometimes encountered that often in the dark hours of the night I wondered "Is it possible that everyone else is wrong and only you are right?" But I had a few supporters notably Mr Menne, the head of the Division, who selected the rock outcrop on which the Institute is sited, the Chief Accountant, Mr Bekker, who caught my vision, and the Circle Engineer, Mr JC Cox who helped in countless ways with the water supply, the fencing and other practical matters once the Institute had been erected within his domain.

But my troubles were far from being at an end. Without having visited the site, the architect produced a plan of a concrete box of a building which would have blended well with countless other similar boxes in a modern concrete city, but would have desecrated the beautiful virgin terrain where the Institute was to be erected. Our views were so divergent that finally we drove through Pretoria looking for any building styles or features that were acceptable to both of us -- and fortunately we found common ground in the architecture of Norman Eaton. Thus the columnar brickwork of the facade is a feature culled from the wall he designed around a church. Some irreversible mistakes occurred. Construction of the Institute Thus I had not realised from the plans that the windows in some laboratories were inconveniently high. Also I had wanted the stone foundation to be rough and craggy so as to harmonise with the surrounding rocks and was dismayed to find one morning that the Italian stonemasons had set the stones in a smooth jigsaw pattern before I could intervene. To crown it all, the builder went bankrupt before he had completed the building. The daunting thought occurred to me that if Winston Churchill could take up bricklaying, maybe so should I in order to finish the building project - but the Public Works Department re-awarded the contract, and finally after all these frustrating setbacks and delays, the building was ready for occupation in 1970.

In designing the Institute I wanted to profit from the experience of others - but as most hydrological research units have been part of existing engineering department, I wrote to a wide range of other research organizations worldwide, asking the basic question: "Based on your experience since the inception of your institute, what mistakes would you be careful to avoid if you had to start again?" Two items of advice stood out: Firstly - build a structure far larger than is required for present requirements and those envisaged for the near future. In this I was thwarted by the Public Works Department's design regulations of x square metres per person, plus y%, which allowed for only modest, that is, short-term growth. The best way I saw of overcoming this restriction was to make it possible to build extensions at the ends of each wing and transverse corridor -- a facility which has since proved its worth. Secondly -- build for flexibility, for in a new, broad, innovative and rapidly developing field of research such as hydrology you have no inkling of what you will be engaged upon ten years hence. If you fail to build an adaptable structure it may well be outmoded and redundant not long after completion. This provision for changing and expanding needs I tried to achieve by extensive use of demountable interior walls, enabling the number, size, shape and use of rooms to be altered at will at only modest expense and inconvenience. But the price of this versatility was some loss of privacy, for the partitions were far from soundproof.

I have dwelt on the events which led to the founding of the Hydrological Research Institute (herein after referred to as the HRI), and on its design philosophy -- but what of the work for which the HRI was intended? It was clearly the view of the "founding fathers" -- the Interdepartmental Commission which, to counter the growing fragmentation of hydrological research, recommended the establishment of a central, unifying division of hydrological research -- that hydrology was, and should be nurtured as, a HOLISTIC science. This is a view I still uphold. At the risk of being trite, let me repeat what is well-known but tends to be overlooked -- that our planet's water resources, dating back to its creation, are substantially fixed but are both highly mobile and subject to constant changes in form between the gaseous (water vapour), liquid (water) and solid (ice) forms. Interacting powerfully with other substances, our water resources are also highly variable and sensitive as regards quality. In effect, the many hydrological processes are intricately interrelated, with the result that a change in any one has a chain-reaction on others, often with far-reaching consequences. Thus even common practices such as burning large expanses of veld or ploughing them and planting mielies alter the quantity, time disposition and quality of runoff, base flow, and groundwater accrual, not to mention the quantity and quality of water reaching users downstream. More often than not these changes, sometimes damaging, occur inadvertently and may be difficult to remedy - but they could have been anticipated by the foreknowledge whose acquisition is the task of the hydrological researcher. But such foreknowledge also enables us to manipulate hydrological processes beneficially, one example being mulching to curb unproductive evaporation of soil moisture, so as to make more available for assimilation and thus the growth and yield of crops. Cloud seeding, again, is an example of an intervention with potential for both harm and good.

Consequently the HRI initially comprised seven sections viz.:

  1. Hydrometeorology: The atmosphere being regarded as the primary renewable source of fresh water, the section studied, inter alia, changes in the intensity / frequency distribution of rainfall, runs of wet and dry years, the incidence and classification of drought, prediction of the mean annual rainfall of ungauged catchments based on altitude and locality factors, the feasibility of extracting water from cloud caps on mountains, and evaporation suppression, and also collaborated with the Weather Bureau in a study of the hydrological consequences of rainfall stimulation.

  2. Surface water hydrology: This section initiated some of the earliest attempts in South Africa in computer modelling of river flow, and undertook studies of seiches and the propagation of density currents in dams, of the transport and deposition of sediments, and of estimating and reducing evaporation from dams.

  3. Groundwater hydrology: In addition to studies on the natural and artificial recharge of aquifers, the use of radioactive and stable isotopes and other techniques for studying groundwater recharge, movement, yield and age, and even the use of explosives to increase borehole yields, many ad hoc investigations were conducted in various parts of the country.

  4. Water Quality: Anticipating the growing threat of water pollution despite enlightened water legislation aimed at prevention rather than cure, the HRI initiated an extensive preliminary limnological survey of all major fresh water bodies in South Africa, and was also one of the first to acquire an Auto-analyser to automate and so speed up the analysis of the rapidly increasing number of water samples. It transpired that the instrument had been designed primarily for use in the medical sphere, so many adjustments and recalibrations had to be made. Biological studies of water and sediments also commenced.

  5. Catchment Management: The work of this section centred mainly on statistical analysis of meteorological and hydrometric records to discern trends in unit runoff and flow characteristics, and by linking these to successive aerial and ground surveys to interpret the trends in terms of discernible changes in land use.

  6. Hydrological Techniques: This section concentrated on testing and developing new research techniques such as the use of isotopes, simulation modelling, evaporation measurement and estimation, water sampling etc., which could then be used by other sections in their specific investigations.

  7. Multi-disciplinary Research: The main function of this section was to liaise with bodies such as the Geological Survey, the Weather Bureau, the Department of Agriculture and of Forestry, the CSIR, and various universities on joint research and other matters of common concern. It also functioned as the secretariat of the Interdepartmental Committee for Hydrological Research.

It is questionable whether any organisation ever achieves its full potential. That is certainly true of the HRI, for it encountered many problems.

For one thing, at its inception there was no formal, comprehensive training for hydrologists available in South Africa except for the courses included in the curricula of some engineering faculties. Instead we had to recruit staff from a range of scientific disciplines such as mathematics, geology, geography, physics, chemistry, botany and zoology, some of which had only tenuous links with water. Moreover, as it was a period when there were more attractive openings in the private sector, we had to employ whom we could get rather than what we needed to implement our research blueprint. (For example, at one stage there was a surfeit of nuclear physicists). Inevitably this led to some imbalances and gaps in the staff structure and research progress. But on the positive side there was a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas and expertise, and at one stage there were no fewer than eight nationalities among the staff. Moreover, on occasion graduate students from the University of Aberystwyth and from Germany spent some months at the HRI, assisting in projects and gaining experience.

The second but perhaps the major drawback was that, by nature and by training, relatively few scientists, then or now, are able to think holistically -- and as I have emphasised, hydrology with its multiplicity of finely balanced interactions is a holistic science. Perhaps the problem arose from our education system which requires students to start specialising early on, causing a student's sphere of knowledge to become ever narrower and more concentrated, whereas a hydrologist needs to comprehend an ever broader spectrum. It is a transformation of thought process that many are unable, or disinclined, to achieve. Speaking personally I count it a singular privilege and advantage to have taken a hybrid degree with an almost equal balance of arts and science subjects, for I think that the sciences lend precision to the arts which, in turn, impart vision to the sciences. Perhaps the science and philosophy of ecology has progressed further than hydrology in promoting the holistic approach -- and there are some tentative signs that this may also be starting to develop in medicine.

Thirdly we had to contend with piracy. The HRI proved to be a good recruiting outfit, and once they had proved their merit, the most promising staff were sometimes transferred to other divisions within the Department, who had been less successful in the recruitment race. This dubious practice climaxed when, after a gruelling Public Service inspection, two posts of Assistant Director were created for the HRI -- whereupon head office promptly filched them both to promote and retain engineers elsewhere in the country, leaving me, as Director to continue carrying the acknowledged workload of three people.

And fourthly the swing of the pendulum between centralisation and decentralisation, between aggregation and segregation, which for so long has been characteristic of the Public Service, continued, and has probably not yet ceased. A growing organization almost inevitably tends to be split up -- as for example, when geohydrological research hived off as a separate entity.

And fifthly, research emphasis inevitably shifts with changing needs. This is right and natural -- provided it does not become too narrow and inflexible, or deprive other research fields of the attention they merit.

That the HRI has survived for 21 years suggests that it has indeed met a need, and is a tribute to the dedication of its staff. It has come a long way since it was officially opened on 20 October 1972, its achievements based on satellite imagery being but one of the exciting new developments never envisaged at that time. I wish to congratulate you one and all, and to wish you continued success in confronting the mounting challenges of the future.

JOAN S. WHITMORE 21 October 1993.


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