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Wadi Hydrology

Managing and Mentoring

by E. James Nelson,professor of civil environmental engineering

Water is fundamental to quality of life and a decent standard of living. Throughout the ages, peoples of the world have settled near water sources and thrived when there was abundance. Because of the rich, fertile Nile valley, Egypt, often considered the cradle of civilization, developed a society with diverse occupations. In ancient times, the one constant struggle in life was to get enough food to survive. It was difficult to have enough for today, let alone to plan for the future.

As the ancient Egyptians learned to control and work with the mighty Nile, for the first time farmers were able to grow more food than they required for th<ememselves. This allowed others who preferred to work in hunting, shoe making, house building, or pursue education to do what they wanted and then trade services for food. All of this was possible, because of water, and the irrigation engineers’ ability to harness and use it. Today, civilizations are similarly established around the availability of water. Yet nature can be cruel and unpredictable. Often there is more water than needed and devastating floods result, whereas other times long seasons of drought wreak havoc on farmlands and other domestic water users.

In the United States we are water rich compared to other parts of the world—due in large part to an abundance of water, but also because of our ability to store and manage water such as is evident in our desert southwest. Table 1 (on next page) provides a relative comparison of water usage, which is a correlation to water availability, per capita between the U.S. and many other countries, including several in the Middle East region.

A sample of the watershed modeling system (WMS).

As difficult and problematic as water issues may seem for us at times, compared to the people of the Middle East we have far greater water resources. To provide a more intuitive comparison, people in the U.S. have/use one gallon of water for two tablespoons of water used/available by people in Palestine. Egypt is somewhat different because of the Nile river. Outside of the narrow strip of Nile delta there is nothing but desert with little or no water available.

The scarcity of water in many parts of the Middle East adds increased tension to already unstable political relationships. Countries must exploit every last drop of water, and they are constantly looking for better methods to quantify available water and management practices that allow them to efficiently use what they do have.

Mutual Learning and Cultural Exchange

A sample of the surface-water modeling system (SMS).

Over the past decade the Environmental Modeling Research Laboratory (EMRL) (formerly the Engineering Computer Graphics Lab) developed sophisticated computer programs for most aspects of water resources modeling. The programs developed by faculty, staff, and research assistants of the EMRL can be used to quickly estimate volumes and peak runoff rates from rainfall events, including the ability to determine storage in reservoirs and detention basins (the watershed modeling system or WMS). Other programs are capable of modeling complex river and coastal systems (the surface-water modeling system or SMS) and groundwater aquifers (the groundwater modeling system or GMS) (see modeling samples above).

A sample of the groundwater modeling system (GMS).

The EMRL software has been commercialized through BYU’s technology transfer office and is now used in over nine thousand organizations in more than one hundred countries worldwide. The success of the software has opened up many doors of interest and brought numerous opportunities to collaborate with water engineers here in the U.S. and abroad. For example, our Federal Highway office has licensed the EMRL software for all state departments of transportation for drainage and hydraulic analyses along roadway corridors. The Department of Defense uses the software to monitor environmental activities at military sites in support of military actions and to help predict the potential for catastrophic failures of dams.

This composite graphic is a conceptual rendering of how the three programs (WMS, SMS, GMS) work together.The upper left part with the brown outline and blue river lines on it is representative of WMS, the black gridded area running from top to bottom at a slight angle is representative of SMS, and the blue and green layers below the map on the bottom of everything are representative of GMS.

Dr. Radwan Al-Weshah, of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Jordan in Amman, initially became interested in BYU in 1993 when Professors Woodruff Miller, LaVere Merritt, and Kyle Rollins, of BYU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, visited the University of Jordan as part of a program to explore collaborative opportunities between the two universities. Because of the notoriety of BYU’s software and Al-Weshah’s work as a hydrologist, he chose to spend more than a month at BYU in January 1996 as part of his professional development leave to be trained in the WMS. Upon his return to Amman, Al-Weshah began applying the software to several watersheds and water resource projects in Jordan and the surrounding area, including a study of flood management for the historic Petra location, also a popular tourist site.

In 2000, Al-Weshah received an appointment in the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Cairo, Egypt, office as the regional hydrologist for the Arab states. Because of his knowledge and experience with the EMRL software, he began recommending its use to his constituents. Then in 2001, as part of the Fourth Annual Conference on Wadi Hydrology, I was invited to present a short course on using the WMS for Wadi hydrology to engineers from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Sudan.

At that seminar, engineers learned how the WMS could aid in both flood protection as well as predicting and controlling water runoff for water harvesting activities. The success and enthusiasm resulting from this activity led to the desire to put in place a more formal relationship, and in February 2002, Al-Weshah traveled to BYU and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Sandra Rogers, international vice president at BYU. This formed a collaborative and cooperative relationship on water modeling and management between UNESCO’s Cairo office (Arab Region), and Brigham Young University. The MOU calls for joint collaboration between engineers and scientists and students and faculty of the EMRL on a variety of water resource projects in a spirit of mutual learning and further provides opportunities for significant cultural exchanges.

Dr. Radwan Al-Weshah and Sandra Rogers

The inaugural activity, completed spring 2002, involved eight BYU graduate and undergraduate students, two BYU professors, and several scientists and engineers from the Arab region in a training program, and several pilot projects based on software developed by BYU’s EMRL for watershed modeling.

Mentoring Students’ Learning

In fall 2001, BYU announced that funds for mentored student environments were being increased and the administration encouraged faculty to seek opportunities to include undergraduate students in meaningful academic activities. Miller and I proposed, and were awarded, a grant that provided the financial resources to include eight graduate and undergraduate students as part of the first collaborative exchange organized under the newly-signed MOU.

The students were already working for EMRL as programmers of the WMS, but many lacked the broader understanding required to apply WMS in modeling projects. During winter semester 2002, the eight students were divided into four teams of two, and each group was assigned to work with a designated contact. Al-Weshah invited select engineers from the Middle Eastern countries of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Sudan to work with the students and provide information about current hydrologic modeling practices and needs. At the same time, the students were able to study more about the hydrologic processes that can be modeled with WMS and the requisite data to drive these models. Each pair of students located as much pertinent data and information about the use of WMS in the designated region and worked to develop a pilot project of local interest to their corresponding engineer.

Forging Friendships

The culminating activity of the project was a trip to Egypt for myself, Miller, and the eight students. The primary purpose of the trip was to provide an opportunity for extensive collaboration on the use of WMS, modeling practices in arid regions of the Middle East, and apply lessons learned while doing the pilot projects and data collection.

Professionals and students attended the five-day seminar.

A five-day seminar was held at the Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI) in Cairo, Egypt, 29 April–5 May. During the exchange, students worked with their assigned contact as well as other engineers familiar with the hydrologic practices of the region and who were interested in applying WMS. Much of the time was spent one on one assessing individual needs and helping Egyptian engineers to adapt the models to solve their most pressing needs. It stretched everyone technically, but through these exchanges strong friendships were forged and the opportunity for further collaboration is certain.

Cultivating along the Nile

Besides the technical exchange, the cultural exchange was an equally important aspect of the program. Our Egyptian hosts provided numerous activities that allowed all of us to experience the vast history of the region and come to better appreciate the people. Trips were arranged to visit the National Museum, where many of the ancient Egyptian artifacts are on display, and of course no visit to Egypt would be complete without a trip to the great pyramids of Giza, which included a guided tour deep into the heart of one pyramid, where we saw firsthand how the glorified pharaohs were buried in the attempt to ensure their immortality.

The highlight of the cultural activities included a trip to Aswan, where we took a brief tour of the High Aswan Dam. This dam stores the largest volume of water of any dam currently operating in the world. It is situated on the Nile in the southern-most regions of Egypt and has forever altered life along the lower Nile. Because of its magnitude and wide-ranging effects, it is the subject of many engineering and ecology studies.From Aswan we were able to travel by boat down the Nile, where we visited many ancient ruins and were able to see up close how the fertile Nile valley has been cultivated and managed. The boat trip ended in Luxor, where visits to the largest and most ornate ancient temples and tombs provided us with an in-depth lesson on the history of the great pharaohs and their people.

Learning Outcomes

Students demonstrate ERML software

While my research has given me opportunities in the past to work with small groups of students, never have I had the chance to involve them so directly with professionals outside the university who are applying and benefitting from the work we do here at BYU. Since this is the first time I have conducted such a program, I cannot compare relative successes, but from all accounts— teaching, learning, technical, and cultural—it is apparent to me that the program was highly successful. I believe excerpts from three of the student essays prepared after the visit to Egypt effectively convey the impact this activity had on the education of these students:

While in Egypt, I learned about myself, about my work, and about the world. Overall, I gained a desire to learn much more about life and engineering. Many times it has been hard for me to ask for help, but on this trip I worked with Dr. Nelson and the other students who taught me in a way I may not have learned otherwise. I was also able to see how WMS helps people in their everyday lives. I saw pictures and heard of the effects of floods in Egypt and Syria, and I helped show the engineers from these countries how WMS can help them to cut down the problems that these floods cause. This in turn can help cities and governments to focus their resources in areas other than reconstruction and reclamation efforts. I felt good bringing something to people that can help to increase their quality of life. I feel like I was able to relate to some of their situations and see firsthand some of the problems, as well as their strengths. I look forward to working with these people in the future. I feel that I gained a better understanding of my part in humanity and what contributions I can make. I hope to be able to help improve the lives of others if only in a small way. I am grateful for the chance to visit and work with people in the Middle East. It has helped me to want to be a better person and learn more so that I can make a contribution in some small way whether that is with what I am learning now or what I will learn in the future.

—Aaron Averett

The mentored learning environment has been a tremendous benefit to my educational goals. I am working toward being a practicing hydrologist. This opportunity has increased my knowledge of the current practices in hydrology as well as strengthened my understanding of the application of hydrology and its importance. Working together as a team was a unique experience. For most classes, homework is merely something you work on to learn some concept or skill. Contrasting with the standard classroom experience, creating the tutorials, simulations, and acquiring the data for real projects gave an added dimension to the process of acquiring knowledge. No longer was I learning in a self-centered mode, but I was learning to better teach and aid others. Learning with the goal of teaching others in a real-life situation gave motive and impetus to a desire to work hard, learn well, do a good job, and go the extra mile. No other class in my experience at BYU has been able to add this vital energy to the learning process. Without a mentored experience, no student’s education should be considered complete. It changes the applicability of the subject material from hypothetical to reality. It sets the knowledge to be gained in the proper setting for understanding, comprehension, and utility. This activity has provided a rich and broad experience that has greatly enhanced my educational experience. Through this experience I have been able to work on skills that are otherwise passed over in an engineering education. I have gained a greater appreciation for the diversity of the peoples of the world and the rich heritage that we all share. Through the many experiences gained from this program, I have come to make many new friends around the world. I am now in a better position to be an influence for good in the far corners of the globe— something I never thought would happen.

—Aaron Byrd

The opportunity to work in a mentored environment was stimulating. Unity was built as we learned together, taught each other, solved problems together, and shared our successes and failures in order to accomplish a common goal. It was exciting to work with real people on real projects with real data. This gave me a vision of working in and contributing to the world. I also had the chance to develop teamwork skills, especially by working with Bill Hereth and Jihad. Effective communication was important and sometimes it required time to happen, but we were able to accomplish much more working together. We had opportunities to make presentations to our peers and colleagues and even learned some simple Arabic phrases. It was good to work with Dr. Jim Nelson and get to know him better both personally and professionally based on my direct interaction with him. The work that we do has become more important to me as I have witnessed how it affects others. Culturally, I saw firsthand how people live and work in Egypt and better understand their needs. This experience provided education that would be hard to obtain in another way. Overall, I have realized how much there still is to learn in order to successfully contribute to society. I have also seen a glimpse of the good things that can happen as we contribute what we have and work together to solve problems.

—Marcus Shapiro


The Middle East is certainly a troubled area, and water is one of the precious resources over which much conflict has resulted. Because of the arid nature of the climate there, it isn’t possible to derive more water (desalination is a possibility, but comes only at a very large price). This makes understanding and management of water resources even more acute.

Time will tell if the training and learning our contact people had will be of lasting benefit. We hope that the groundwork laid through this program will serve as a stepping stone to continued collaboration between BYU-student researchers and hydrologic engineers in the Middle East and that the work we are doing will provide researchers in this region with a greater capacity to foster friendships with conflicting neighbors over limited water resources.

Nelson’s research was generously funded by grants from the Kennedy Center and ORCA for Mentored Student Environment.