IHE Delft honours Prof. Álvaro Carmo Vaz with 2019 Alumni Award

18 October 2019

The IHE Delft Alumni Award for 2019 has been awarded to Dr. Álvaro Carmo Vaz from Mozambique. He came to Delft to study hydraulic engineering, specialising in river hydraulics, and earned a Master’s with distinction in 1981. He went on to complete a PhD in hydrology and water resources at the Technical University of Lisbon in Portugal. Throughout his career he has demonstrated a vision for the future and a strong commitment to improving education and water resource management in his country. 

By Heather Montague

A country helped shape a career

Mozambique was a Portuguese colony when Dr. Alvaro Carmo Vaz graduated in 1972 with a degree in civil engineering. He started working as a university lecturer, in addition to doing consultancy work in design. “In 1975 came independence and we were very much engaged in the process of creating a new country so there was lots of enthusiasm,” he said. “The government had priorities and water was one of them.” At that time many Portuguese people left the country, which resulted in a lack of skills in every sector. With very few people working in water, the government’s need led Carmo Vaz to begin his career in water. 

At Eduardo Mondlane University, Carmo Vaz worked in collaboration with the newly formed national directorate of water, Direccao Nacional de Aguas (DNA). The government had plans to build things that required a knowledge of hydrology and water management. “The problem for me was that I knew very little of it,” he said. “I recognised that I needed special training.” 

Around that time, Dutch engineers were also starting to work with DNA. One of the first of these was Professor Hubert Savenije, currently an Honorary Fellow at IHE Delft. According to Carmo Vaz, the university rector in Maputo used the opportunity to invite lecturers from the Netherlands and later asked for scholarship assistance for Mozambican students. NUFFIC came forward with a scholarship and the first student to come to Delft was Joao Salomao, who later became Minister of Public Works. The second was Carmo Vaz. Coincidentally, his wife, Maria Isabel Vaz, who worked at DNA, also came to Delft and earned a Master’s with distinction in hydrology.

Rebuilding after civil war

From 1977 to 1992, civil war ensued in Mozambique. “It was a difficult period because when the civil war started, working in the field became very difficult and dangerous,” said Carmo Vaz. When the Portuguese left, the hydrometric network nearly collapsed because there were no longer people in the field to support it. But by the early 1980s, the network was brought back to almost 100% operation. “We were really happy with what we had done. But with the civil war everything was destroyed or put out of operation, so we had to start almost from scratch,” said Carmo Vaz. 

In 1989, Carmo Vaz was one of four founding partners of CONSULTEC, a Mozambican engineering and environmental consulting firm. Working in parallel with his academic job, he helped the company to become one of the largest and most prestigious engineering consultancies in the country. Over the last 25 years, CONSULTEC has grown to employ 115 people, contributing to the rebuilding efforts in Mozambique. They focus on projects that aim to improve the lives of people, while building the future responsibly.

Educating engineers at home and abroad

Throughout his career, Carmo Vaz has supported numerous engineers in pursuing higher education. As a result of his time at IHE Delft, he encourages people to study abroad. “In my own experience, it’s not only the advantage of excellent learning,” he said, “but being in contact with people from so many different parts of the world with different experience and vision, that is very important.”

But in Mozambique, financing studies abroad for a large group of people is not easy. “While we can send one or two people each year, our needs in the water sector are much greater than that,” said Carmo Vaz. Despite limited resources, he has been instrumental in building the first Master’s programme in Water Resources Engineering at Eduardo Mondlane University (UEM). In addition, together with a Portuguese colleague, Carmo Vaz wrote a book about hydrology and water resources which is used both at UEM and other Portuguese speaking universities around the world.

Contributions in his field

Of the many achievements during his career, there are some that stand out. Prof. Carmo Vaz was instrumental in the creation of the Mozambique Water Law in 1991. He was also deeply involved in negotiating water agreements with neighbouring countries. He noted that Mozambique is part of nine international river basins with fifty percent of its water resources coming across borders. Of the negotiations, he said, “It was not easy because the most important neighbouring country is South Africa and until ‘94 it had the apartheid regime. But we did negotiate with them and continued to work at promoting joint studies, which was very important.” He also played a role in the development of the new National Water Policy in Mozambique, which was approved in 2007. But he is quick to point out that he considers his successes as a team effort. “It’s not something that I did alone, but I was part of the effort that really helped to put water on the frontline of the concerns in Mozambique.”

Another notable project was a collaboration on the UNESCO “From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential” (PCCP) programme. Working with IHE Delft’s Professor Pieter van der Zaag, they prepared one of the key studies on the Incomati River Basin. “It was one of the critical river basins and we produced a nice component of this whole programme,” he said. “That was a good effort and experience.”

Reflections on the past and the challenges of the future

Prof. Carmo Vaz has fond memories of his time in Delft. He remembers the rigours of the first semester, experiencing four seasons and going on excursions with colleagues and the camaraderie that created. And he’s glad that people from Mozambique continue to come here to study. “We have this tradition that started a long time ago,” he said. “In 2017 in Maputo there was a commemoration of 40 years of cooperation between the Netherlands and Mozambique in the water sector. The guys who made the speeches at the event were Professor Hubert Savenije and me. It has come full circle.”

Looking back on his time in Delft, Prof. Carmo Vaz said his advice to students now is to take advantage of the opportunities. “I remember that we had a number of compulsory subjects and we had electives. Both my wife and I took much more than was required because it’s a fantastic opportunity here,” he said. “Use this time in the Netherlands the best you can, both here at IHE Delft and in this country.” 

It’s important that water is at the forefront of the concerns for the government and the public in Mozambique, notes Prof. Carmo Vaz, because the challenges now are bigger than ever. The increasing population, growing cities and longer droughts are creating big obstacles. “For us to be able to cope, we have to use the best of our abilities with science, technology, and new knowledge,” he said. “We need the university, we need IHE Delft, and we need all of the cooperation that we can get.

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