The IHE Delft family is saddened by the death of Prof. Jay O’Keeffe, who succumbed to cancer in the early morning hours of December 31st at his family home in Port Alfred, South Africa. Prof. O’Keeffe headed IHE Delft’s Aquatic Ecosystems Chair Group from October 2004 until January 2011 and was the first holder of the institute’s WWF Chair in Wise Use of Freshwater Ecosystems.
Upon leaving Delft to support his wife’s career development, he returned to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. There he continued to act as a champion for IHE Delft, including facilitation of a short-lived discussion to establish a UNESCO-IHE campus in South Africa. Over recent years, he contributed to various IHE Delft project activities and promoted the institution through his international networks.
Over his nearly 40-year career Prof. O’Keeffe conducted ground-breaking research, trained hundreds of students, and supported sustainable development in countries around the world. His main research interests were in river ecology and catchment management planning, with a particular focus on the flows required to sustain river ecosystems and the services they provide to society. He contributed to the development of the holistic method of environmental flow assessment that remains best practice worldwide, and he facilitated assessments in more than 20 countries. In 2004 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Southern Africa Society of Aquatic Scientists for his outstanding contributions in research and also for fostering “co-operative working partnerships and relationships both among and between scientists and water resources managers”. His final papers in 2017 and 2018 highlighted the decisive role of people in the sustainability of river ecosystems. He considered good science a requirement but not the determining factor. Instead he believed it is the people involved, “their knowledge, beliefs, and biases, their commitment and persistence”, who determine success or failure more than any other factor.
Prof. O’Keeffe’s belief in people is also evident in the outpouring of emotion since his death. Messages of condolence and remembrance have been streaming in from former colleagues and students around the world. The words they use to describe Prof. O’Keeffe (Jay) are helpful, kind, generous, gentle, encouraging, humble, positive… a person who made us feel great and who cultivated love and understanding for rivers.
His professional achievements will endure in the tomes of science, and his gifts as a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend will endure in the people who knew him.
This in memoriam is written by Professor Michael McClain