Tammo Steenhuis

2011 International Award Winner

Tammo Steenhuis received the International Award at the 2011 Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 7 December 2011 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “an individual scientist or a small team for making an outstanding contribution to furthering the Earth and space sciences and using science for the benefit of society in less favored nations.”


Tammo Steenhuis has left an indelible mark on hydrological science and water resources engineering in the form of exciting research and in the form of a large number (>70) of graduate students who carry on his legacy. Steenhuis has well over 200 publications in ISI-­rated peer-­reviewed journals that address a wide range of water resources issues. His early scientific achievements concerned pollutant movement through agricultural watersheds. His highly cited work on preferential flow in the vadose zone from the 1990s explained why standard percolation theories failed to predict the observed presence of pesticides and other contaminants in groundwater. Steenhuis and his graduate students also played central roles in developing variable source area hydrology. These fundamental concepts are now widely adopted in other watersheds including those of the Susquehanna in the United States and the Blue Nile of Ethiopia.

Steenhuis’s research and educational activities have increasingly expanded beyond the United States. Much of Steenhuis’s and his group’s research has focused on developing nations including Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Honduras, Mexico, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and China. This work addresses the specific water resources issues in the context of each region’s unique hydrology. For example, in the Philippines he focused on hillside springs; in Ghana the focus was on small water supply impoundments; and in the north China plain, groundwater overdraft was at the center of attention.

One of Tammo Steenhuis’s most notable international achievements is the establishment of a successful graduate program in water management and hydrology at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia. He was involved at all levels including securing funding, developing the program and courses, coordinating faculty and staff, actively teaching several courses, and mentoring graduate students in their research projects. The primary goal of this program is to train local professionals in the skills needed to address the region’s growing crises in water quality and soil degradation. Steenhuis initiated his work in Ethiopia with a 2002 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This led to the establishment of a program entitled “Training and Research in Integrated Watershed Resources in the Lake Tana Basin” at Bahir Dar University. Rather than bring Ethiopian students to Cornell University, this program brings Cornell’s faculty, staff, and course materials to Ethiopia, to complement and enhance existing educational resources.

In light of Tammo Steenhuis’s ceaseless efforts to improve our fundamental understanding of water resources issues, especially in developing countries or parts of the world facing critical water crises, we nominate him for the AGU International Award. Unique to Steenhuis’s accomplishments are his continuous efforts to build educational and research capabilities within countries and regions where such resources are scarce and difficult to accrue. Thus, not only has he improved our understanding of hydrological processes central to water resources protection in many parts of the developing world, but he also has been largely instrumental in enabling scientists and engineers in these areas to more effectively continue to improve our knowledge of these systems.


—Nick van de Giesen, Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Delft University of Technology, Delft, Netherlands


Professor van de Giesen, thank you very much for your kind words of introduction. I am honored, and I know that I am standing here thanks to the many people with whom I have been cooperating.

I remember vividly 40 years ago to the month when Aafke, our 6-­month-­old daughter Femmigje, and I boarded a KLM plane in Amsterdam to move to Madison, Wisc., where I would become a graduate student of Gary Bubenzer. We had a vague understanding that we did not want to stay in the United States because the war in Vietnam was a bad thing. However, after I graduated, Norm Scott, the chairman of what is now Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE) at Cornell University, took the risk of hiring a foreigner—the first. And now, 40 years later, we are still in the United States. Not much has changed in that 40 years. The plane tickets from Europe to the United States are still the same price, and there is still a war but now in Afghanistan.

International work takes two to tango. Spending the funds according to well-established procedures is not sufficient for cooperation; it is like a dancer with two left feet. In our case, it was Bahir Dar University president Tsehai Jemberu who invited Amy Collick and me to write a $150,000 grant, which Bahir Dar University would be able to submit for Ethiopian funds, in order for Cornell University to run one of the first master’s programs in Integrated Watershed Management. U.S. Agency for International Development/Higher Education for Development (USAID/HED) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the second batch of master’s students in this unique program. The graduate school deans Allison Power and Terry Plater were helpful in allowing us to give, for the first time, a Cornell degree without the recipient setting foot on the Cornell campus. Alice Pell aided in obtaining a Cornell grant for paying the Ethiopian students’ tuition. The chance for a Cornell degree made it possible for us to select the very best applicants in Ethiopia. The department and, especially, the chairman, Mike Walter, were very supportive and allowed me to be creative and flexible with my teaching and other duties at Cornell. Recently, Baylie Damtie, the current president of Bahir Dar University, visited the Cornell campus in support of the cooperation. The master’s program, with the great help of many, especially Amy Collick, has now educated 34 master’s students. Eight of them are now in Ph.D. programs on three continents. In addition, we have published 12 peer-­reviewed papers on the hydrology of Ethiopia. I am really proud of what has been accomplished by all of these individuals. They share in this award.

Cornell is a marvelous place to do research. Where else is it possible to work with so many top-notch colleagues, two of whom are Horton medal winners: Wilfried Brutseart and Jean-Yves Parlange. The Cornell Soil and Water Group (that includes me) is very much indebted to them for making science doable. I strongly believe that they contributed greatly to the success of the group. In addition, over the years it has been a great delight and thrill to work with many graduate students and postdoctorate scientists, many of whom are now professors with large research programs. These once young scientists have been amazingly productive and are responsible for much of the work that has been mentioned in the citation. My only task was to give them the freedom to explore and to make it fun and rewarding for them to do the research.

It is rightfully customary on these occasions to take a moment and thank the family. I would like to thank Aafke and our nine children for their willingness to put up with my late hours and “odd” belief that solving a problem or writing a paper has always been more interesting than going to a movie, seeing a play, or watching TV. Lately, since the children are out of the home, the trips have become longer and more often. I know that the free air miles tickets are really not sufficient appreciation, and thanks to them.

Finally, I am deeply grateful to AGU and, specifically, the members of the committee for choosing me as the 2011 recipient of this wonderful international award.

—Tammo Steenhuis, Cornell University, Ithaca, N. Y.