Delft, The Netherlands, 26 Oct 2016

A life in water, an interview with Prof. Seifeldin, Alumni Award winner 2016

Last week, the UNESCO-IHE Alumni Award 2016 was won by Prof. Seifeldin Hamad Abdalla, a former Minister of Water Resources in Sudan, who is still working for the Ministry. He received the award for his outstanding contribution to water-related issues sustaining the livelihoods and well-being of communities in Sudan, especially through Nile Basin transboundary work. Presenting the award, Dr. Holzwarth (Rector, a.i) said, “his work made a difference on the ground”.

When explaining the award selection, Dr. Holzwarth related that Prof. Seifeldin had carved a distinguished, varied and accomplished career. Having completed his course of study in Hydraulic Engineering at the Institute in 1983, Prof. Seifeldin continued his studies to PhD level at various international organizations. The Professor joined the Ministry of Water Resources in Sudan in 1979 where he applied his practical water engineering knowledge to water resource decisions and construction projects, such as dams. Previously the Minister for Water Resources, the Professor is currently the Chairman of the Water Resources Technical Organ of the Government of Sudan.

The following is based on an interview with Professor Seifeldin conducted at UNESCO-IHE, on the day of the Alumni Award Ceremony. You can also watch the video interview here.

Charting a course through research, engineering, management and a Ministry

During his award acceptance speech, the Professor reflected that being a Nuffic supported student at UNESCO-IHE, from which he graduated in 1983, had been a “landmark in my life”. When asked about the position his Institute experience holds in his life, the Professor expounded that, “The Institute had a special impact in my life…but not only on me and my career but in addition, to my country and on the region at large”. He went on to describe how after Delft, he had soon returned to Sudan where he was able to apply his Institute learning directly, while working on the operation and maintenance of dams. He gives the example of using his soil mechanics learning and that of structural design, to resolve problems with degrading dams. He also spoke of utilizing his new found knowledge in the selection of sites for irrigation pumping stations along the Nile and was justifiably proud to point out that the stations are still fully functional 25-30 years later.

Beyond the technical skills accrued, he reflected that his Institute education had also informed his subsequent approach to management and operations, as well as to conflict resolution and transboundary matters over the years. His work enabled agreements to be reached between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, which arguably not only prevented conflict but enhanced the livelihoods and the well-being of millions of people; important work given that 90% of Sudan’s water is shared with neighbouring countries. He was also instrumental in the development of various Nile water use policies and strategies.

The Professor was keen to stress that his expertise had been continually updated by following published research outputs from the Institute. Referring to this opportunity for ‘life-long learning’ he summarized by saying, “It was not only a one time education in Delft, but it is an education from 1982 up until now”. 

A wider vision of science, intercultural exchange and potential impact

Retaining a connection with the Institute amongst the 15,000 alumni around the world, is valuable for both professional social reasons, but the bond in Prof. Seifeldin’s case seems particularly strong. When asked about this, he gave a number of reasons. He spoke first about the overall uniqueness of the Institute saying that, “It gave exposure to different types of addition to exposure to the technical and social life of students there is also the diversity of technical specialisations. It is unusual to be exposed to this experience”. Indeed he cites his time in Delft as being instrumental in changing his professional direction, having previously assumed he would work in building construction. Once working on water issues he realized that, “Water which is life, affects all the lives of the rich and poor societies”. So he shifted from what he dubbed a; “narrow vision to a wide vision, which is going to affect the people in my country, region and to some degree have an international impact”.

He also cited the diversity of specialisations as well as the quality and dedication of the teaching staff, strengthened by their mix of nationalities and backgrounds, summarizing that; “Wherever and whenever you go, you find very strong recognition for the Institute, which has laid down a very strong foundation of an independent, recognised and prestigious education”. Recollecting the value of the technical visits to facilities in Germany Switzerland, France and Belgium, he mentioned that those had specifically resulted in the solving of dam maintenance problems back in Sudan.

Socially, one of Professor Seifeldin’s strongest memories was his participation in the ‘Meet the Dutch’ programme, set up to help international students settle in the Netherlands and also to expose Dutch families to the cultures of visiting students. He states simply that, “This is one of the best experiences in my life”. Indeed happily during the Professor’s time in Delft last week to receive the Alumni Award, he was able to reunite with the Dutch couple who had been his friends through the scheme more than 30 years ago.  

Professor Seifedin had a chance to reunite with his Dutch family Petra en Niek Graafland, while he visited Delf with his own family to receive his Alumni Award. 






Water as a connector

Reflecting more broadly on the value of retaining a connection with the Institute, the Professor went on to say that, “When you go through life you are going to face new problems…this is a dynamic process… and that is why the alumni network is so important, socially and scientifically”. He spoke of meeting Institute alumni throughout his career, during his studies in the U.S and Italy to his Nile Basin and Nubian Sandstone Aquifer work, which included representatives from Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Libya. As he cheerfully summarized, “The Institute is spread everywhere and this is a unique institution with a very unique reputation and you feel it everywhere…this gives me a special feeling when I meet Institute alumni”.

Further developing this theme while looking to future challenges, he went on to say that, “Water has no borders and so water education has no borders and I think this is a responsibility on our shoulders. We have to continue to support this kind of education as it has the most impact on the livelihood of the people”. The Professor seems to have started a family tradition with his daughter and son-in-law currently also studying at the Institute. With both present in the Award Ceremony audience it is perhaps appropriate that when asked about his reaction to receiving the reward he replied, “I believe this is not only a recognition for me, it is a recognition for all the generations of water engineers that have had their education here in Delft”. In words and actions he has set an inspiring example.

You can hear more about Professor Seifeldin’s work by viewing a recent talk he gave at UNESCO-IHE here.

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