Capacity-Building Needs for National Hydrological Services

by Julius Wellens-Mensah*

Hydrological services

In broad terms, a hydrological service is an institution whose core business is the provision of information about the water (or hydrological) cycle and the status and trends of a country’s water resources. It may exist as (WMO-No. 1003, 2006):

  • A National Hydrological Service (i.e. with national coverage);
  • A part of a National Hydrometeorological Service or a National Hydrological and Meteorological Service;
  • One of the main sectoral Hydrological Services;
  • A federal Hydrological Service with many state/regional Hydrological Services.

In this article, the emphasis will be on National Hydrological Services with the understanding that most of the issues raised and addressed are equally applicable to the other types of Services.

Role of National Hydrological Services

The role of a National Hydrological Service (NHS) is to provide accurate information on the condition and trend of the country’s water resources. This is required for economic and social development and for maintaining environmental quality. In general, the information is used for planning, development and management of water resources.

At the international level, water data and information are required as a contribution to international programmes and activities, as well as global experiments involving interactions of the land, ocean and atmosphere.

Some specific uses of hydrological Information

Provision of hydrological information on the status and trends of a country’s water resources are for the following uses (Guide to Hydrological Practices (WMO-No.168)):

  • Assessing a country’s water resources (quantity, quality, distribution in time and space), the potential for water-related development, and the ability to supply actual and foreseeable demands;
  • Planning, designing and operating water projects;
  • Assessing the environmental, economic and social impacts of water resources management practices—existing and proposed—and adopting sound policies and strategies;
  • Assessing the impacts on water resources of other non-water sector activities such as urbanization or forest harvesting;
  • Providing security for people and property against water-related hazards, particularly floods and droughts.

Functions and responsibilities of Hydrological Services

To meet the requirements to provide accurate and reliable information on water resources, a Hydrological Service need to carry out the following functions and activities (Guide to Hydrological Practices (WMO-No. 168)):

  • Establish the requirements of existing and possible future users of water resources information;
  • Define the standards (accuracy, precision, timelines, accessibility, etc.) of the data that are implied by those requirements;
  • Design and establish hydrometric networks to measure the various types of data required;
  • Develop methods for transferring information from measurement sites to other locations in the regions for which it is representative;
  • Collect data and maintain quality control of the data-collection process by inspecting field installations and field practice;
  • Process and archive data and maintain control of the quality and security of the archived data;
  • Make the data available to users, when, where and in the form they require, including:
    • Dissemination of hydrological forecasts and warnings;
    • Publication of yearbooks of basic data;
    • Preparation of reports on water resources in which data are comprehensively analysed (these may include media such as hydrological atlases or databases in geographical information systems);
    • Information for project design, including the frequency of streamflow extremes;
    • Inform potential users of the information that is available and assist them to make the best use of it;
    • Develop new technology and carry out research into hydrological and related processes to assist the user in interpreting and understanding the data;
  • Develop staff and other functions related to quality assurance, such as the preparation of instruction manuals and assessment or acceptance testing of new instrumentation;
  • Ensure coordination with other agencies that acquire water-related or other relevant information, such as hydrogeological, water-use, topographic, land-use or climatic information;
  • Represent national interests in international organizations with water-related mandates.

A schematic flow chart of the functions of a Hydrological Service is summarized below.

  Activities of a Hydrological Service


The basic elements of capacity- building are the strengthening or development of institutions, their managerial systems and their human resources (Delft Declaration, Delft, 1991).

Capacity-building in water resources assessment, according to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Agenda 21 (Chapter 18), consists of four interrelated basic elements:

  • Creation of an enabling environment with appropriate policy and legal frameworks;
  • Institutional strengthening and development, including local community participation;
  • Human resources development, including the strengthening of managerial systems and water user interests;
  • Awareness building and education at all levels.


To be able to fulfil the mandate, perform the functions and deliver the services required of it, an NHS needs to build institutional, operational and human resources capacities.

Institutional capacity-building

Legal, administrative and managerial framework

The prerequisite for institutional capacity-building is an enabling environment with a legal and administrative framework that confers on the NHS a clear mandate and functions as the agency or one of the agencies (in the case of multiple agencies) responsible for hydrological data collection and dissemination. In addition, an NHS needs to have in place a managerial system that spans all levels of management, namely, strategic, tactical and operational levels of management.

Quality management

Apart from a managerial framework for day-to-day administration and management, the current trend of management dictates that an NHS should also incorporate quality management in its managerial framework.

WMO quality management framework

The growing need for customer satisfaction in delivering hydrological services and products requires introduction of a quality-management system into the operations of an NHS. The present WMO Quality Management Framework (QMF) for Hydrology, though useful, is inadequate to meet the quality-management needs of NHSs. The existing quality-management framework guiding NHSs consists of a set of WMO technical guidance documents and materials such as technical regulations, manuals, guides, guidelines and technical documents. These documents focus mainly on technical aspects of hydrological observing systems and measurements. A recent addition to the QMF documentation is the publication Guidelines on the Role, Operation and Management of National Hydrological Services (WMO-No. 1003 (2006)), which has proved to be useful guidance material for NHSs. However, the totality of the current WMO Quality Management Framework for Hydrology fails to address the quality management system needs of NHSs.

Quality-management system

A quality-management system (QMS) goes beyond the technical aspects of operations to a process approach involving all aspects of operations of an NHS. A QMS may be defined as the organizational structure, procedures, processes and resources needed to implement quality management. It is intended to attain higher efficiency and effectiveness in the operations of an NHS to satisfy customer requirements and needs. The introduction of a QMS, based on, for instance, the Principles of ISO 9001:2000 quality-management systems, assures quality control, quality assurance and quality improvement in the operations of an NHS. The principles of ISO 9000:2000 are customer focus; leadership; involvement of people; process approach; system approach to management; continual improvement; factual approach to decision-making; and mutually beneficial supplier relationships.

To operationalize an effective QMS, based on the principles of ISO 9000:2000, an NHS needs to implement a minimum of six documented procedures, namely, control of documents, control of records, internal audit, control of non-conformities, corrective action and preventive action.

It is worth mentioning at this point that other quality-management systems in use include the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Programme, the Six Sigma Programme and the European Foundation for Quality Management Model.

Infrastructure needs

With deteriorating and declining networks, NHSs need to renew or maintain the necessary infrastructure to be able to fulfil their basic function of hydrological data collection. This infrastructure includes a network with river gauging instrumentation for data collection and real-or near-real-time data transmission by telemetry or satellite. The infrastructure can be augmented by acquisition and installation of new available cost-effective, more accurate technologies such as divers, data-loggers and radar water-level sensors for water-level measurements and acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs) for current measurements. Mobile telephony technology also offers a cost-effective alternative for real-or near-real-time data transmission.

In the case of physiographic data collection, upgrading from surveying levelling instruments to total station surveying instruments and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) greatly facilitate physiographic data collection with higher accuracy and efficiency requiring fewer staff numbers and less time.

For water-quality and sediment measurements, the capacity needs of an NHS range from field equipment such as samplers and portable laboratory kits for in situ measurements to a fixed laboratory for more complex analysis.

NHSs also need supporting facilities such as workshops for servicing instruments and field equipment, well-stocked libraries with relevant reference materials and up-to-date journals to keep abreast of state-of-the-art technologies and practices. Good e-mail and Internet facilities with a broadband and high-speed connectivity is a necessary requirement for a modern NHS.

Automatic water level recorder    

Data processing and dissemination

Basic core activities of NHSs include data processing and dissemination. To be able to do this effectively, NHSs need to acquire or upgrade their computing, storage and hydrological data-management capabilities to handle the ever increasing amount of data collected. In the face of the constant danger of virus infection, NHSs need to pay greater attention to data security and protection by looking beyond routine data back-ups. New computer technologies hold multiple hard disks that mirror the information on the active hard disk drive and provide higher data security and protection. Many hydrological data-management softwares offer capabilities for publishing hydrological data, thus enhancing the capability of data dissemination; other facilities that enhance data dissemination of which NHSs should take advantage are CD production, e-mail transmission and, where State policy allows, over the Web.

Operational capacity-building

The boundary between operational and institutional capacity is a thin line, not firmly fixed and there is often overlapping. The essential difference is that institutional capacity may be seen as an “installed capacity” to enable an NHS to fulfil its mandate and deliver the services required of it, whereas operational capacity provides the means to utilize the “installed capacity” to actually deliver the services.

Thus, operational capacity relates to the provision of logistics such as vehicles for field work and an adequate budget for operational and other costs. The operational budget could be a mix of government-allocated funds and an enabling environment that allows cost recovery and collection and retention of internally generated funds from services provided with the ultimate aim of a self-sustaining funding mechanism for operational costs.

The ability to generate income from services in a sustainable manner comes mainly from providing commissioned hydrometry services such as establishing and rating a station; monitoring stations for data collection and detection of pollution and contaminants; hydrological analyses for projects; streamflow, flood and drought forecasting, development of hydrological products; and carrying out water-related environmental impact assessment. The sale of data is neither viable nor sustainable. To be able to develop useful hydrological products, an NHS has to develop strong modelling capabilities through acquiring and mastering the use of hydrological applications software, geographical information system (GIS) tools, routines and procedures.

Beyond providing services and products, NHSs need to develop capacities to extend the hydrological data and information value-addition chain by using their expertise to turn information and knowledge into recommendations for responses to conditions and challenges as advice and decision-support systems and tools for customers and end-users. Areas that could benefit from decision-support systems are adaptation to climate change impacts on water resources, environmental management, flood and drought management, water-related disaster mitigation and management and water resources availability and allocation at different locations, among others.

It is important to publicize, create awareness and reach out with available services, products and decision-support systems and tools that an NHS can offer end-users. The Internet and Web-based provision of information have become useful media in addition to conventional means of disseminating information to customers and end-users. Appropriately, service and product development should derive from end-user needs obtained through interacting with the end-users.

Human resources capacity-building

The availability of human resources with the right qualifications and in the right numbers at all levels—strategic, tactical and operational—is crucial for a sustainable NHS.

Traditionally, human resources engaged for NHSs are:

  • Junior technicians, normally with secondary education and, additionally, limited training in technical subjects;
  • Senior technicians, usually with secondary education and a specialized formal training in a technical field but at a level of non-academic degree;
  • Professionals who have academic degrees in hydrology or in civil engineering, agricultural engineering, physics, mathematics, computer science, statistics, geology, geography, biology or chemistry and who have undergone postgraduate specialized training in aspects of hydrology or water resources assessment.

For the professionals, there are two major orientations of hydrology: one towards geoscience and the other towards engineering. A balanced NHS needs expertise in both orientations.

In addition to technical personnel, an NHS needs staff with managerial skills at strategic, tactical and operational levels and the relevant supporting staff in administrative, personnel, accounting and informatics functions. In line with the need to satisfy customer demands and the increasing requirements for quality management in service-providing organizations, the requisite expertise in introducing and implementing a quality management system in NHSs needs to be developed.

The key success factors in implementing a quality management system in an NHS, involving all staff of the Service, are:

  • Full commitment of top management. This entails adequate allocation of resources for, and management involvement in, the implementation of the quality management system;
  • Staff buy-in, commitment to and understanding of the quality management system. This include preparedness to take on additional responsibilities such as day-to-day consistency checks and other quality control processes;
  • Provision of adequate training in the quality management system to both management and staff.

Human resources development should be driven by the vision, mission and goals set by the Service and should therefore be budgeted for and implemented as a regular activity. Human resources development in NHSs should therefore aim at right-sizing different levels of functions as well as replacing or renewing manpower lost as a result of retirement, promotion to higher managerial or administrative positions, resignations and natural attrition. Based on needs assessment for manpower requirements of an NHS and the training needs analyses of individuals, a human resources development strategy based on training and continuing education for both management and staff should be pursued. For total human resources development, training and continuing education should be complemented with the assignment of appropriate post-training levels of responsibility in the Service to enable staff to acquire experience and confidence.

The training and continuing education of the human resources of an NHS should take advantage of all training modes available: in-service training; formal higher education in training institutions; seminars, workshops and conferences; and continuing education and professional development.

In–service training

In-service or in-house training is most suitable for junior technicians and newly recruited senior technicians and professional staff. Apart from impacting technical knowledge, it also gives the trainees the requisite orientation of the Service. In-service training consists of exposure to theory and practical hands-on training whilst still on the job. It is more effective if delivered with written course materials and manuals. WMO should consider collaborating with NHSs to develop such training materials and manuals, especially for the training of technicians in order to standardize training for technicians. In-house training should also include refresher courses for existing staff at all levels. Where the opportunity exists, advantage should be taken of attachments and internships with another relevant institution to broaden the horizon of trainees. Rotational attachments within the Service could also achieve similar results.

Formal higher education in training institutions

Formal higher education in hydrology and related courses are normally long-term, ranging from about six to 24 months, undertaken by staff with academic degrees in a relevant discipline. Such courses, which are offered in universities and specialized institutions, may lead to the award of a postgraduate diploma or a master’s degree; there are few universities or institutions offering full courses in hydrology at the undergraduate level. Such courses normally give the trainee a formal recognized qualification in hydrology and/or water resources engineering. With the increasing need for research activities in NHSs, a conscious effort to develop some professionals, who exhibit the ability, to the level of doctorate degrees to lead research in their Services should be encouraged. There are also tailor-made courses in some institutions for training senior technicians. WMO Regional Training Centres are particularly useful and need to be strengthened and established in more WMO Regions.

Seminars, workshops and conferences

Seminars, workshops and conferences are short-duration events, well-suited for senior technicians and professionals. They afford the opportunity for achieving proficiency in a particular aspect of hydrology, give exposure to new methodologies and promote exchange and cross-fertilization of ideas with other professionals. They made be organized by local professional bodies, societies or associations and by regional or international bodies such as WMO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Environment Programme. They serve as useful platforms for keeping abreast of current trends in the industry.


Management class using a mobile classroom
(Photo: University of Idaho)

Continuing education and professional development

To remain up to date and relevant in the Service, continuing education and professional development should be on the mind of every staff member of an NHS. For most senior staff, it is the vehicle for obtaining formal training in management and administration. Such management training may be obtained from a national staff college for public service staff or through part-time studies at a university or a management training institute. Opportunities are also available for distance and e-learning, not only for management courses but also for technical courses in hydrology and water resources. Continuing education has the advantage of increasing the depth and breadth of the competences of a professional and therefore need to be pursued conscientiously and diligently. As a contribution to expanding knowledge in hydrology and water resources, professionals should consider undertaking research studies leading to a PhD on a part-time basis or as a sandwich programme which are becoming increasingly available. The combination of industrial experience and research studies could be a significant contribution to the study and practice of hydrology and water resources.

To meet its objectives, an NHS needs to develop its human resources and capabilities to deliver services, products and decision-support systems and tools to its customers, end-users and society at large. Acquisition of applications software and modelling tools enhances the capability of an NHS to meet the expectations of society.

In addition to applications software and modelling tools, there is the need to develop a core group of modellers and product developers to sustain this activity, with an in-built mechanism of transfer of expertise and techniques to other colleagues.

A good starting point is for NHSs to make use of WMO’s technology transfer mechanism which is the Hydrological Operational Multipurpose Systems (HOMS). HOMS facilitates the transfer of technology among NHSs with an emphasis on sharing technology developed by the Services that would not normally be available from commercial sources. The components of HOMS comprise, among others, descriptions of technical manuals and computer programs which have been tested and used by an NHS and contributed to HOMS. The Service can then supplement HOMS with commercial applications software.

NHSs also need to make use of newly available technologies to improve the outputs of models and forecasting. For instance, among the cutting-edge technologies available for hydrological modelling and forecasting are inputs from radar and satellite-based rainfall estimation and numerical weather prediction.

Such inputs coupled with significant advances in spatial modelling capabilities such as digital elevation models and GIS tools have great potential to improve significantly the accuracy of the outputs of hydrological models. Such improved modelling techniques are expected to result in better products, advisories and decision-support systems and tools such as flood forecasts and warnings, floodplain and inundation maps and flow forecasts for reservoir management.

Unfortunately, the expertise in NHSs for using the above tools in modelling and forecasting is very limited. NHSs therefore need to develop the capacities to utilize these inputs that are available through the National Meteorological Services.

class room    
Hydrological mapping
(Photo: Oregon State University)


The capacity needs of National Hydrological Services cover three areas of institutional, operational and human resources capacity-building. Institutional capacity-building embraces the establishment of legal and administrative frameworks and a managerial system; implementation of a quality management system; development and maintenance of infrastructure for data collection and transmission; and development of efficient and effective data-processing and dissemination capabilities.

Operational capacity-building relates to providing logistics for field work and adequate budgets for operational costs and an enabling environment for generation and retention of revenue towards cost recovery and eventually a self-sustaining funding mechanism for operational costs. It also entails developing systems to deliver services, products and decision-support systems to end-users and customers, together with an effective outreach mechanism to address the needs of customers.

Human resources capacity development is driven by the vision, mission and goals of an NHS and should be a continuous process aimed at renewing the human resources and positioning the Service to meet the challenges of its internal and external environments. Human resources capacity-building embraces technical, professional and managerial development of the Service, taking into account the special needs of each category of staff and the human resources needs of the Service for a sustainable self-renewing Service. Particular attention needs to be placed on developing capacity for implementing a quality management system.

For total human resources development, training and continuing education should be complemented with assignment of appropriate post-training levels of responsibility in the Service to enable staff acquire the relevant experiences and confidence. The modes for training for all categories of staff include in-service training; formal higher education in training institutions; seminars, workshops and conferences; and continuing education, professional development and self-improvement.

NHSs should aim at developing human resources to be able to deliver services, products and decision-support systems and tools to customers and end-users. There is the need to acquire specialized training to improve modelling techniques and, in particular, to be able to use outputs and products from cutting-edge technologies such as radar and satellite-based rainfall estimates and numerical weather prediction inputs in hydrological modelling and forecasting. Capacities should also be developed for carrying out research.

In conclusion, all aspects of capacity-building should be geared towards enabling NHSs to carry out more efficiently and effectively their basic functions of data acquisition, processing and dissemination, as well as developing value-added products and decision-support systems and tools for decision-making.


IHE/UNDP, 1991: A Strategy for Water Sector Capacity-building. Proc. Of the UNDP Symposium, Delft, 3-5 June, 1991. IHE Report Series No. 24.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, (UNCED), 1992: Agenda 21, Chapter 18—Protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources, Rio de Janeiro

WMO, 1994: Guide to hydrological practices (5th ed.), WMO-No. 168, Geneva.

WMO, 2006: Guidelines on the role, operation and management of National Hydrological Services. WMO-No. 1003, Geneva.


* Vice-president, WMO Commission for Hydrology


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