Hallway Conversations – Johannes Cullmann

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Nilay Dogulu.


Johannes Cullmann [Photo source: WMO]

Dr. Johannes Cullmann is a hydrologist, currently acting as the Director of the Climate and Water Department (CLW) at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). His scientific background is flood forecasting, and has vast working experience in hydrology practice in the international context. Johannes Cullmann is also the Head of the CLW’s Hydrology and Water Resources (HWR) Branch where I worked as a consultant last summer. I had the pleasure to interview him briefly in his office at the WMO Secretariat (Geneva, Switzerland) despite his tight schedule and being often on missions.

ND: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and education? How did you become interested in hydrology?

JC: After I finished high school in Germany, I moved to Italy to do my civil service there. So, I didn’t go to the military but worked for a social project in Italy for one and a half years. During my time in Italy, I realized what an important commodity water is as we had no water in the summers. In Germany, you have water every day, all day long, hot or cold. Since it is always there, you don’t realize how important water is. So, I decided to work in that field and I went back to Germany to study hydrology. Ever since then I work with and for water.

ND: You already had a master’s, so what motivated you to do a PhD in hydrology? Was it due to your interest in academia and research?

JC: After completing my master’s degree, I thought it was now time to be practical. I went to Chile and started working for the German Development Service (DED) for some years. My work in water development projects for Chile focused on land use and economic planning. Afterwards, I went back to Germany. Actually, DED wanted me to work in Nepal starting in September. Everything was almost settled on both sides. In February, a colleague from the university called me and said: “can you help us out with a project? We need somebody to do some statistical analysis for stage discharge verification in a watershed”. I agreed to help them with the project. This experience reminded me how much I enjoyed research and missed academia. Luckily, the professors offered me an interesting project to work on. So, I ended up doing a PhD in Germany and didn’t go to Nepal. So, it was more or less a perchance that I did a PhD—Laugh!

Although I didn’t plan the PhD I started to plan my scientific career after the PhD. I did a habilitation, i.e. an advanced academic qualification leading to being a full professor. My plan was to become a professor then. In Germany, you have to apply for a professorship and then there is a selection process. You can only become a professor if another professor retires and frees up a space. I was once selected to become a professor. During the negotiation process I realized that the university and myself had not a very concrete view of what an “institute” in a university should do. In the end the talks were interrupted, and the university appointed another professor. In short, when I had planned my scientific career it didn’t go anywhere. When I didn’t plan, it went well—Laugh. But this might not be a good message valid for everyone.

ND: Are you implying that planning is not always useful, or maybe better to say, we should plan but plans might change?

JC: I think you have to know what you want. Sometimes it is difficult to find out what you really want. Yet, if you have a goal you will eventually find the way to do things that are supporting this goal. Then, it is about having the courage to say “yes” and the courage to say “no”, when needed. Well, I think everybody gets their chances in life and you just have to then do things. Normally, it turns out to be good.

ND: You have been working in the field of hydrology for a long time. Which topics/issues are more of interest to you?

JC: My hydrological career has been mainly based on modelling and flood forecasting. I have also worked on artificial intelligence and for 1.5 years in a project for the Water Framework Directive. I engaged in hydro-political context starting early in my career working as development aid worker in Chile. My real specialty is modelling and forecasting, but I worked in many other different hydrological contexts.

ND: What do you think about the contribution of each experience in different contexts?

JC: I think it is good to have one focused specialty if you want to understand perspectives of what people need to have or need to be able to do. For example, it makes me feel good that I know nobody who can tell me stories about hydrological modelling or flood forecasting. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be a forecaster or modeller, but everybody needs one strong field where they really have in-depth knowledge and feel comfortable with. Knowing that you are good gives you security and comfort. And then other fields complement that. In my case, other areas like hydro-politics, capacity building or water diplomacy helped me to develop a wider perspective on my own specialty. If you are technically the best forecaster but you know nothing about how a forecast is communicated or how a flood warning is perceived it is overall of no great use for the society. Maybe you are then the forecast king but nobody cares.

ND: Having all these different experiences, what can you tell about the fields that are critical where hydrologists should/could contribute to address these and resolve the issues?

JC: What hydrologists can do is to provide objective and relevant information on hydrological issues. This can be on flood forecast, flood risk mapping, water supply, or water scarcity planning for an irrigation scheme. I think many times decisions are made without realistic knowledge on hydrological systems of interest. For example, in big river basins there are many conflicts on dams, water abstractions or hydro-power. Normally this is because there is not enough objective information on hydrological processes, water availability or renewable water. I think this is where hydrologists can contribute the most, to create solutions for medium- and long-term future, much more sustainable than today’s solutions. Today most water solutions for many transboundary basins are costly and inefficient, and very often politically motivated yet not very intelligent.

Hydrologists can also of course help to save lives. If you are a hydrologist you don’t need to work in international context. If you are a good hydrologist in a local forecast office, you can really save lives if you do good forecasts. It has many different levels of how you can do good things. It can be very local but it can also have a big regional or global impact.


Johannes Cullmann speaking at the Budapest Water Summit in November 2016 [Photo source: IISD]

ND: How did you decide to work in an international organization?

JC: When I finished my PhD I had three job offers. One was a post-doc in Montpellier, France, on irrigation optimization. Another was a contract in the EC Joint Research Centre (European institution for flood forecasting) in Ispra, Italy. And one was an offer from the German government to be the head of a unit within the government’s hydrological institute, i.e. Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG) in Germany, which was about research and international relations and development strategies. That unit has close relations to UNESCO and WMO. It was basically also a secretariat for the WMO UNESCO water programmes in Germany providing the interface between the international world and the water landscape in Germany, which was very fragmented. Why did I choose to go to Koblenz which was probably the least interesting of the three places? There was Ispra which is nice, at the mountains. Montpellier is a very nice city where I could live very comfortably. And there was Koblenz which is a bit more of grey town on the Rhine. I chose Koblenz because I felt that I had the biggest potential to work creatively. The other two jobs were mainly research and development. The third job, although it was in a more boring place, it had most room for being creative. And that led me to the international organizations.

ND: Speaking of creativity, what is the relation between creativity and success, in your opinion? Are they related?

JC: One can be very successful without any creativity. However, success also depends on how motivated you are. As I said earlier, for me, it would be not rewarding to be the best forecaster in the world if that didn’t mean I could develop new ways to interact with the people that need the forecast results. In many sectors, you are successful if you don’t make arrows. If you are very creative you tend to make more arrows. I think it is a personal choice. I would be unhappy to be an uncreative successful person.

ND: As the head of the Climate and Water Department at WMO, what are your current responsibilities and tasks? What is a typical work day like?

JC: Oh, there is no typical day! That is the good thing about this job. Main things I deal with is to really see that we have consistent and well-focused activities in WMO to support all the water and climate topics. There are so many different things that range from being more with different divisions; divisions are the units that do flood forecasting or climate services. Developing the bigger picture with the people responsible for these divisions is what I do. My responsibilities include a lot of strategy making for the whole organization as well as personnel management. This is a very interesting mix and there is never a same day.

ND: What is unique about WMO? Was there any big surprise after you started working at WMO?

JC: No big surprises. What I like about WMO is that it is an organization that is very practically oriented compared to most of the other UN organizations. It is very small so it is much easier to work in. In big UN organizations people do not know each other and they sometimes don’t even know what the organization does. Here at WMO everybody knows, more or less, what everyone else is doing. In general, we have a small organization. I like working here because I feel that we have a very open and transparent working environment. I don’t perceive hierarchy as being heavy in our part of the organization. I am very happy to work with my supervisors. I can go to their offices any time. I also have an open door for everybody in the department to come to my office too. It is kind of a very nice working environment.

I think we sit at a very important place in this whole development agenda debate. In reality, the world needs to understand how sustainable development must be steered and what needs to be done in terms of mitigation and adaptation. This is a political dimension of our work. As a prerequisite to provide good decision support for political processes, it is important to have the basic understanding of how natural processes change, e.g. hydrological cycle—the water quality and availability. We have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have the Sendai framework. We try to support all these in the Conference of the Parties (COP) process. The real thing is to help societies, regionally and globally, by an information-based system where sustainable development can be evaluated against the long term: Does water availability change? Does our ability to produce food change in the mid to long term? That is one thing. Other thing is it is very practical in terms of what we do with Associated Programme on Flood Management (APFM) or flood early warning systems. I also like it because it is very practical, directly at the implementation level of things, and less political.

ND: Well, you emphasized that WMO is more practical. Starting your career as a researcher and now being on the practice side, so to speak, what could you say about these two worlds of hydrological sciences and practice?

JC: Well, the one without the other makes no sense. Research for its own makes no sense. It is nice to know, but if you can’t do anything with that knowledge, what is it good for? It is a bit like this Russian guy who served the million-dollar mathematical enigma but he didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. So, it makes no sense! Practically the practical world will never really advance if the scientific developments are not taken into account. But what does that mean for the single process? You can either work in one or the other world and feel good there (and want to belong only to that part). Scientists can only be scientists and be happy. Other people just do operations and have no time to be scientific. So, probably there needs to be some people who facilitate the interface between those two worlds. They will have a frustrating job because a lot of the times both scientists and operational people will say “well, I am not interested, I have no time, there is no money in it, there is no fame in it, that is not what I am being paid for”. But actually the science to operation interface is the place where things can really happen. For example, during my PhD we developed a methodology to improve forecasting for a certain purpose and under the guidance of a certain administrative body in Germany. When we were finished with it, these people never used it because they were not feeling comfortable with it—they were not used to new things. Later on, in my next job, at the Federal Institute for Hydrology, we implemented this methodology for a slightly different purpose. It costed us around 5000 Euros to adopt to the new context we were working, that was in this case for forecasting for shipping. It worked well. That was for me such a relief. It was so good to see that something that I had worked on for three years was finally put to work in practice. I think for many researchers this must be a very big reward to see that what they have been thinking about and figuring out and trying and failing and trying again and then finally coming up with, is actually meaningful for somebody else. We can catalyse these things through inviting more people to jointly develop these things in the research agenda and take up in the practical world. That is a challenge. You need to have the ability to overcome lots of frustrations. But it is also an interesting job. WMO is one of the many interfaces that tries to bring science and practice together.

ND: What advice would you give to new and aspiring hydrologists?

JC: My advice would be: find something you like to do and be good at it and then the rest will come somehow. If you start off and if you are trying to prepare perfectly to become a UN director, you will never be one. I don’t think these things can be planned. It is good to have goals and aspire to contribute things to whatever you want to contribute to, but then in the end the most rewarding thing is that you create for yourself your own secure field in your own topic. From there you can go anywhere. Things will just happen.

ND: How do you see the future of hydrology?

JC: Oh, it is bright (laugh)! I mean water, totally intertwined with the food question, is the central piece in the sustainable development and adaptation puzzle. All the mitigation related to climate change is probably more like an energy, transport, and economic problem. For adaptation a lot of the things must and will happen in the water sector. Population dynamics also trigger lots more demand for water managers. So, there will be more need for more good hydrologists in the future. You can’t do much wrong if you study hydrology or if you are becoming a hydrologist.

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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