Hallway Conversations – Claudio Caponi

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Nilay Dogulu.


Claudio Caponi in his office at the WMO Secretariat in Geneva

Claudio Caponi is the Chief of the Division of Capacity Building in Hydrology and Water Resources – one of the three divisions under the WMO’s Climate and Water (CLW) Department, Hydrology and Water Resources (HWR) Branch. He has been working at WMO Secretariat in Geneva since January 1999. He has substantial experience in capacity building for hydrological services particularly in developing countries. I met Claudio Caponi for the first time during the Expert Forum on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in a changing climate: Lessons learned on lessons learned back in early 2015. Furthermore, I had the pleasure to work with him this summer during my time at WMO as a consultant for the HWR Branch. I took this opportunity and interviewed him to understand about the hydrological practice in the world. He kindly answered our questions at the WMO Secretariat attic floor with the amazing view of the Lake of Geneva.

ND: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and education?

CC: I am Claudio Caponi from Venezuela originally, of Italian parents. That is why my surname is Italian, but I have been working most of my life in Venezuela. I am a hydrologist. I graduated as a civil engineer from the Central University of Venezuela. In Venezuela hydrology is taught at the engineering faculty in a specialization called hydro-meteorology. In my time, you could specialize in either meteorology, hydrology or climatology. I chose hydrology. After that I did a master’s at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in Delft, the Netherlands. Then I worked as a consultant, and then as the Director of the National Hydrological and Meteorological Service, which was part of the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources of Venezuela (at the time it was called like this). It was more or less from 1986-1999. The Service was in a quite good shape. We had a lot of support from the rest of the Ministry. There was a lot of understanding about the importance of hydrology. For instance, even before my appointment, we had a Director that had a policy of sending every professional staff member to study abroad, depending on their level; Masters or PhD — all of them! The goal was that in 5 years everybody should have gone at least to a 1-year long course abroad. So, there was a very interesting and stimulating work environment. That was until 1999, when I joined World Meteorological Organization (WMO) as an officer for Hydrological Operational Multipurpose System (HOMS), which focusses on the technology transfer system for operational hydrology. Now the title of my position is Chief for the Capacity Building in Hydrology and Water Resources Division.

ND: How did you start your career? What was the driving force which pushed you to the field of hydrology?

CC: It is funny because at the time what I would have liked to study was literature, not hydrology. But in 1970s’ Venezuela that was not a very popular choice. There was a lot of need for engineers and not so much support for humanities, so I entered in engineering without a clear idea of what to do. During my second year (at the time the programme was two basic years and then three years of specialization), it was one of the very hot days and I was at the university. The only cool place was the theatre of the faculty. I entered and it happened to be the “open doors day” for the Department of Hydrometeorology. All different departments of the faculty of engineering would present at different days their programmes and do a one-hour introduction. Actually, I entered just because it was cool and I was going to sleep, but then I became interested in what they were saying. I liked the idea of working in the field. At the time, I really had no idea whether I should go for the construction side of civil engineering (e.g. buildings, roads) or hydraulics. It called my attention, then in the following days I visited the department and then I decided to go there. It was quite a coincidence but I don’t regret that I did that.

ND: What are your main responsibilities at work, projects, main tasks, etc.? What is the agenda of the division?

CC: My main responsibility is to try to close the gap between developing and developed countries through activities that build the capacities of the developing countries in general, but all countries can be assisted; there is no discrimination, in better doing their job to provide improved hydrological service to their community. We have a strategy that has been approved by the Commission for Hydrology (CHy), our governing body, which says what are the priority areas where training is needed for our Member countries. For example, currently the priority areas are stream gauging, flood forecasting, low flow estimation etc., and there is a review in every 4 years. The strategy also indicates preferred modalities such as distance learning courses. These have been very successful for basic topics. We also organize face-to-face short workshops and on-the-job trainings. The strategy also covers the support to the awarding of fellowships to people interested in studying hydrology at the graduate and post-graduate levels, up to masters. WMO gives quite a number of fellowships each year, around 70 to 100 fellowships per year. Twenty years ago, less than 10% were for hydrology. CHy’s goal was to increase the number to 25-30%. We are still not there but we are much better. Around 20% of fellowships awarded in WMO are for hydrology.

ND: What do you think about the critical needs in your field?  

CC: First, we should say that we, as WMO, deal mostly with operational hydrology. So, the needs I have to take care of are those of the operational hydrologists. In this context, one of the main concerns is how to translate the scientific and technological advances of recent years, not only from developed to developing countries but also from research to operation. Operalization of scientific advances that may be considered evident in some countries, in others is far from being accomplished. For instance, we have a longstanding discussion with the remote sensing community because they tell us “Oh, you can do a lot of things in hydrology with remote sensing”. But, in fact, even in advanced countries products of remote sensing are not used as widely by the operational hydrologists as by the remote sensing community. I don’t think either community has the right answer. We need a little more dialogue and understanding of each other. They should understand our needs because things may sound very nice at an academic level, but are not useful when you have to use them on a day-to-day basis. Maybe operational hydrologists should dedicate a little bit more time to see how they can upgrade/modernize their procedures. There is something intrinsic in every kind of operational services. People get used to doing something. And after years they don’t want to change that. Even if you tell them you have a much better technology available, you have to convince them, you have to train them in a continuous way. To change a mind-set is the real challenge, you need good arguments and a lot of dedication.

ND: What do you think about the role of young hydrologists in addressing these needs/challenges? How can they contribute?

CC: On one side, we have to cater for the people that are already in the Services. Five years ago, in South America they estimated the average age of the staff in Hydrological Services to be 55. I don’t think that things are improving. There is a lot of restrictions within public services, such as you cannot hire new people unless one position becomes vacant, and sometimes not even then. So, there is an aging of Hydrological Services in many countries. In some cases, they are taking remedial actions by hiring a lot of new people, often with precarious contracts. So, in many parts there is a generation gap. Either 55 or 25-30 years old people. Well, we have to train the old ones but we have also to take care of the young ones, as it is much easier for young hydrologists to accept, understand and adapt to technological changes. The challenge is to find the right balance. Of course, it is not easy for young professionals to enter an organization and completely change the procedures, because there is a lot of inertia in organizations. They don’t want to change, they are opposed to sudden and big changes. The change should be gradual. There is a big role for young people. They should be the ones that understand and promote the change. Of course, the conditions should be made available for them. I have been thinking a lot about these issues. In the past, I used to concentrate mostly on the existing staff. But, actually, it is much easier to modify attitudes at the graduate level. So, we are trying to discuss with some of the universities that teach hydrology to not modify but incorporate in their curricula some of the issues that are easy to get the young people to accept. Most of us have learned by doing in the job, and I have not noticed that the curricula have changed much in recent years. To me the big role of the young hydrologists is to transform and modernize, for the better, the organizations they work for. You are going to be the leaders of the future, so it is better that you start learning and bringing the change from the beginning and not once you have become used to the routine. After a certain time, it is very difficult to change your and others’ mentalities.

ND: What awaits the field of hydrology? What are the essential steps for the future?

CC: That is very difficult to say. Personally, I have never understood the utility of trying to guess what the future will have in store, say 30 years from now. With the rate of changes in society we experience nowadays, who can guess even approximately what awaits us? Just imagine if someone had asked you in 1987 what awaited the field of hydrology in 2017, who could have dreamed of the communications advances we now take as part of everyday life?

Now, I may be biased towards developing countries, but to me the most essential step in the future at the international level is that; whatever advances we will see in the next decades, we transfer them as soon and as smoothly as possible to the developing world. That is not happening now. Technological advances such as automatic stations, hydroacoustic equipment, remote sensing, etc., are still a black box to most Hydrological Services in developing countries. And, to me, the responsibility falls mostly on the international institutions and the aid to development community, as most of the efforts made in the past and still at present in our field were focused on projects providing foreign technologies, equipment, international consultants, rather than in building the capacity of the local hydrological services.

ND: Maybe this connects more to the sustainability aspect of the measurement services, i.e. upgrading networks with the new technologies?

CC: To me the sustainability aspect is linked to selecting the technology more adequate to the situation at hand. In other words, you could have a very good network consisting of traditional instruments. So, it is not the specific technology that matters the most, but the fact that the one you choose is sustainable for the country in question. In the future, one issue that I am sure is going to come always more to the forefront is the one of non-traditional information sources, big data, crowdsourcing, etc. It is not enough to make demonstrations such as “we can do nice forecasts with citizens taking pictures of the rivers”. The question is how do you incorporate that non-traditional information in the normal data flow and with what quality control. It doesn’t have to be of the same quality of the traditional measurements, but you need to know what the quality is, how it compares, and what the uncertainties are. That is the challenge we have to face to take advantage of these new information sources, but we have to make it in a way that is sustainable and is useful. To me sustainability is the most important aspect in hydrology, in general. How to make sure that, if you want to implement a project to strengthen hydrological activities in a country, you do it with a long-term objective that goes beyond the project duration. 20 years from now, you still feel the effect. That is not what happens now, where most of the time a project ends everything goes back to the status it was in before the project.

ND: In connection to the previous question, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities for hydrologists in the next 10 years? Or maybe in the next 50 years? 

CC: For the next 10 years, to me, a lot depends on where you are coming from. I think that everyone should choose where he/she wants to work.  In a normal situation, you would think of making a career in your home country—perhaps I am old fashioned, as in my time mobility was not as easy as it is today. Then, you should understand what are the needs of your country. When I studied in IHE-Delft, there was an admission requirement that I didn’t understand at the time. They would not accept a student for their Master programmes that didn’t have 3 or 5 years of work experience.  Now I understand! At least I understand the intention. It doesn’t make sense for many people to go abroad and study without having an understanding of what are the needs and the situation back home… You may not need 5 years. Even in one year you can get an idea. In my case, I was very enthusiastic and got interested in modelling of the unsaturated zone. I remember in Delft I could consult a library where I could find every publication I needed. When I returned to Venezuela, I found out that the National Hydrological Service had no library and almost no useful data to conduct most studies, let alone of the unsaturated zone. So, I had the choice between moving to the United States or Europe and pursue my research abroad or dedicating myself to help building the basic infrastructure in my country to support the studies I wanted to make. It would have helped me in my selection of subjects to study if I had known more about the status of hydrology in my country. I was really very naive. Anyhow, I think that advanced countries are more in need of dedicated research in fields of their local interest. For instance, if you are in the Netherlands, on groundwater. In the case of developing countries, as I have already said: how to adapt those advances to their situation? How to make them operational? I am not saying that there should not be research in a developing country, but it should be adapted to their needs.

ND: What advice can you offer to individuals just starting their careers? Maybe after having completed their master’s or directly after obtaining their bachelor’s degree?

CC: I suppose whoever studies in the field of hydrology, does it because s/he has a passion. There are not many rich hydrologists around. My advice would be to always do things with passion. Of course, you will have to accept some compromises, but try to always keep in mind what is it that drives you. Don’t become a victim of the routine. You may have to accept a non-ideal job, but even the most routine office job can be interesting if you can transform it. I see a lot of people that come out of master’s or graduate studies and when they start working they become very disappointed by the bureaucracy, the day-to-day administrative requirements. Well, I myself am still very much disappointed by those things. The best approach is to fight them, not to accept them. Unfortunately, many people just accept them and always complain (they share their complaints over a coffee: “this organization is very stupid, etc.”). Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that when you have a lot of people working together you have to have some bureaucracy. There is a minimum bureaucracy that is needed. What doesn’t make sense is the exaggeration. I think it is up to the young people to bring new ideas and propose changes, not just to criticize illogical procedures but try to fight the distortions of the system from the inside. Nowadays, administrative processes have become more complicated everywhere. Young people are the ones who can assist in making things simpler, by bringing fresh ideas and taking advantage of the new technologies they have grown up with.

ND: What advice would you give to new and aspiring hydrologists? Your answer to the previous question relates to this. The very first three suggestions.

CC: For the aspiring hydrologists: there are many parts in the world where you cannot be an aspiring hydrologist because you don’t have any way to study hydrology in your country. You have to go abroad. The first thing to do if you have an interest in this field is to try and find out what is the best programme to follow. It is not that easy in many countries to say “I want to study hydrology”. However, now it is much easier to get access to the right information than before. Now you have internet and you can find a lot of relevant information there, both at local level and internationally.

For those who are already hydrologists: as I said, I have a bias towards the developing world. I think it is good to have some experience in the national public service first. I see many people going straight to private companies and consultants. That is good as it is normally rewarding in financial terms, but it is often limited from a professional point of view. In a public service, you have sometimes many different things to do, and if you have a good working environment, you can learn a lot in a short time. In a private company, you have to work within the contracts that the company manages to get, and it may involve the same kind of work for the next 10 years. You can do that, but I would suggest that it is useful to start getting experience in the public sector. Of course, it is very difficult to give this kind of advice worldwide.

ND: Could you share any insights on how you approach creativity? What do you think about the role of creativity in your position while performing your tasks and responsibilities? Do you think that creativity and success are correlated?

CC: I think that you have never to lose, during your whole career, the possibility to be creative. Never accept things that look illogical or stupid in the processes. Never blindly accept people that tells you “this is how it is done”. If ‘how’ it is done is correct, ok, you can accept it. If you feel that what they tell you is wrong, just try to apply creative thinking to the issue. Never forget what is the ultimate goal and what you are supposed to do, be it a project or programme. Look at the problem in a different way and see if you can solve it. I have seen many times that problems that seemed impossible to solve became trivial by just approaching them differently. You need not fall in the trap of the day-to-day routine, of the easy way. When they tell you “this is how it is done”, most people unfortunately think: “oh, then I don’t have to think. Good!”. Don’t do that because then you become alienated, it may be very frustrating. I think that one feels best if s/he is satisfied with the work s/he does. When I became Director of the National Hydrological and Meteorological Service in Venezuela, I found in the payroll about 250 technicians, who were mostly very frustrated because they had not received any promotion for a long time, nor any training. The only things they were interested in were salary increases and getting several benefits that we no longer had the resources or the justification to provide. I insisted in having all of them through a training program, regardless of their age or performance reports. At first, some of them refused to do it, but eventually it became the most successful incentive I could have imagined, as people began to understand the scientific reasons behind many actions they had been routinely performing, and thus started appreciating the importance of their work. You can do any work in your life in the routine way or you can try to improve it through innovation, and the latter is much more rewarding even if your salary is bad, even if your boss promotes his friend instead of you. It is important that you feel happy with yourself and with what you do.

It is also important that education provided at universities promote creativity. I am convinced that all significant changes to improve sustainable development have to start with education. You can’t change the situation of a country by just giving some aid or putting in place some short-term remedies, such as equipment, infrastructure, consultancies. You need to influence the change in education from the beginning. It is not a short-term solution. Sometimes you cannot solve the problem at the university level, because it comes from behind, from the primary school. If you train people to blindly follow rules and memorize things and not to understand processes since primary school, then it is difficult that at the university level they are suddenly going to open their mind.

About the author
Nilay Dogulu (@DoguluNilay) is a PhD candidate at the Middle East Technical University, Department of Civil Engineering and Early Career Scientist representative for the EGU Hydrological Sciences Division (@EGU_HS). She has been actively involved in Young Hydrologic Society since 2014, acting as the secretary (2015-2016) and the chair (2016-2017) of the board. Correspondence to Nilay Dogulu (nilay.dogulu@metu.edu.tr).


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