India’s Hydrology Project phases I (1996–2002) and II (2006–2012) augmented the infrastructure and institutional network necessary for the hydrological information system and hydrological services. The project also supported training institutions, such as the National Water Academy in Pune, in capacity-building efforts. This led the National Water Academy to conduct numerous classroom programmes in training of trainers for hydrologists. However, the geographical spread of those to be trained and budgetary constraints were major issues in organizing face-to-face classroom programmes. Distance learning was identified as the way forward.
There were other challenges: There was room for further improvements in hydrological services, particularly in terms of geographical coverage, quality and lead time for forecast products. Further capacity-building and training efforts were required for ensemble forecasting, hydrological modelling, hydraulic modelling and addressing the impacts of climate change. High turnover in staff, meant that basic training had to be offered on a continuous basic, while also offering more advanced training on new and emerging technologies.
It is also important for hydrologists to work consistently and to improve their knowledge and skills in order to provide accurate models, predictions, and impact and risk assessments. Capacity-building and training of hydrological services personnel is a continuous process aimed at creating a pool of competent officers – professionals from federal and state agencies, hydrologists, academics, etc. The advent of information technology and the Internet offered an effective and economical way of reaching out to a large target audience in the form of distance learning.
The National Water Academy, which is a part of India’s Central Water Commission (CWC), started making efforts in this direction. However, the pedagogy of distance learning is vastly different from that of classroom learning, and the Academy had little experience in the area. The Academy, with support from WMO, built its distance-learning capacity, domain knowledge and developed online training materials on hydrology.
WMO trained the staff of National Water Academy through train the trainer courses, conducted by distance-learning as well as classroom training conducted at COMET in Boulder, United States of America. The comprehensive training and skill development at Boulder gave NWA the necessary confidence to deliver its own distance learning courses.
Academy distance-learning courses
Basic course in hydrology
The Academy delivered its first distance learning course in March 2012. Guidance provided by WMO during this pilot programme was crucial to its success.
The basic course was designed to meet the needs of hydrological forecasters who work with hydrological data, particularly on flood forecasting and design flood analysis. The course was structured to provide understanding of the elements of the hydrological cycle, description of rainfall runoff processes, learning of river discharge measurement techniques, discharge computation by the velocity area method, streamflow routing, derivation and use of a unit hydrograph, etc. By the end of the course, the participants acquired knowledge and skills for application of various hydrological modelling methods and different methods to assess flood risks. There were mandatory and optional modules, catering to the regional requirements and the priorities of participants.
The first two programmes for Indian participants were immensely successful. Thereafter, two international courses were conducted, which were also very well received.
The WMO Executive Council Panel on Education and Training visited the Academy when the first course was being held and took note of the advancements. This led soon thereafter to recognition of the Academy as a WMO Regional Training Centre. This established formal linkages with WMO and COMET and gave wider visibility to the Academy. It also resulted in further take-up of DL courses, not only for the Indian participants, but also for participants from WMO Regional Association II (Asia) Members.
Advanced course in hydrology
After the basic course, an advanced course was developed to further enrich the knowledge of participants. The first such course, designed to meet the needs of hydrological forecasters who require more-advanced training in selected hydraulic and hydrological modelling topics, was conducted in 2015.
It was structured for participants who had successfully completed the basic course or who already had the requisite knowledge on the subject. The focus areas:
- Distributed hydrological models for flow forecasting
- Methods and techniques used in ensemble stream-flow prediction
- Features of dam failure modelling processes
- Various aspects of tropical meteorology, including rainfall analysis and forecasting
- Forecast verification
In distance-learning, it is crucial that training material be self-explanatory, easy to understand and interactive, with plenty of audio-visual elements, so that participants remain engaged during the self-learning process. COMET modules provided the main basis for the distance learning activities. Quizzes were structured to generate interest and make participants explore issues that they may otherwise have missed. This encourages them to re-take modules to achieve maximum score, and thus gain deeper learning.
The Academy developed additional modules on measurement of river discharge, derivation of the unit hydrograph, flood forecasting techniques and flood frequency analysis. These modules were prepared with regional requirements in mind and covered best practices being followed in Indian and Asian regions.
Water Resources in India
India is a vast country with varying climatic conditions and uneven spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall. The country is home to some of the largest river basins of the world – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. It has wide-ranging climatic and physiographic zones that experience all kinds of hydrological events. There are numerous perennial as well as seasonal rivers, some of them carrying huge loads of sediments. Devastating floods every year are as common as droughts. Flash floods and cloud bursts are regular events in mountainous regions. This situation is similar across the whole of Asia.
In such scenarios, the hydrological services are crucial. Hydrological products, like observations and forecasts, play a pivotal role in framing responses to water-related hazards and in decision-making for risk analysis and mitigation.
Data from hydrological networks are vital for preparation and distribution of flood forecasts and warnings aimed at protecting lives and property. They are an essential input for planning, designing, operating and maintaining multi-purpose water management systems by public and private sectors. The hydrological data are also a prerequisite for: design of critical structures like spillways, highways, bridges and culverts; floodplain mapping; determining and monitoring environmental or ecological flows; managing water rights and transboundary water issues; education and research; and protecting water quality and regulating pollutant discharges.
Webinars play an important role in distance learning courses as they provide a platform for everyone to come together and interact. Normally, Academy courses start with a webinar giving an overview and a description of the structure and the various activity components. About 50% of candidates participate in the first webinar. The concluding webinar is usually well attended, and the performances of participants are analysed and names of successful participants declared.
Every Academy distance-learning course was comprehensively evaluated every week, as well as at the end of the course. Feedback was taken from the participants on various aspects of the programme including course content, format and administration. It has been very encouraging, and the popularity of the courses is increasing. There is also demand for more distance-learning courses.
Challenges and lessons learned
Distance learning is a challenging medium of instruction as participants are not directly in front of instructors. There is limited scope for interaction among the participants and with the instructors. The only means of guiding students is through course forums, messages, emails, telephone calls, WhatsApp, Skype, etc. As the courses are self-paced and self-learning, participants can become isolated.
The course structure should be explained at the beginning of the programme. For many participants, it was their first experience of distance-learning courses and the majority of them faced difficulties. The coordinator needs to get in touch and guide them properly to diminish the likelihood of their losing interest.
It is also important to identify the participants that are lagging behind and to try to find out why. There may be various reasons, such as other pressing office engagements, difficulty in understanding or insufficient access to the Internet. Sometimes, participants can become stuck while reading a module and cannot go further unless they understand that particular part. If the instructor is analysing the performance of every participant, it is easy to identify such participants and pay attention to them. Personal communication from the course instructors can motivate participants in re-engaging in course activities.
Some participants are very vocal on the course forum, whereas some can be reluctant to propose their views. However, it is not necessary that every participant be very active on the course forum. From the feedback, it was observed that although a few of them may not have posted anything on the course forum, they were comfortable in their self-study, performed well in quizzes and did not feel any need to post.
In its last three programmes, the Academy set up a WhatsApp group to facilitate communication among participants and instructors. This was not as a replacement of the course forum, but was to facilitate easy registration. It was really useful, particularly at the beginning, when participants experienced difficulties logging into the course website and understanding the overall course structure.
It was observed that about 10%–15% of participants required a good deal of persuasion from the instructor to complete the course. Such participants were contacted by telephone to persuade them to complete the activities, so that they could become eligible for a course completion certificate. This practice of calling participants individually may not be suitable in other regions of the world, due to cultural practice. In India, participants do not mind if instructors are persistent, whereas in other countries, this might be taken as interference in personal space.
Success of the Distance-Learning Programmes
To date, the Academy has conducted ten distance-learning courses, eight on Basic Hydrological Sciences and two on Advanced topics in Hydraulics and Hydrological Sciences. The courses are very popular among hydrometeorologists, private organizations and academics. Each programme is oversubscribed by a factor of 1.5–2 and there are many queries about future schedules. Upon completion of the basic course, many participants have also undertaken the advanced course. Below are a few testimonials from participants.
Pravin Kolhe – Executive Engineer, Water Resources Department, Government of Maharashtra – Basic course 2013 and advanced course 2015:
As a dam manager, my duty is to regulate releases from reservoirs in such a way that the entire flood impinging upon the reservoir can be safely routed without involving any risk to the structure itself or any damage to life and property downstream. Flood forecasting techniques learned during the courses proved to be very important tools in efficient operation of reservoirs, and helped in taking further steps to reduce damage due to floods.
T. Siva Prathap – Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Yogi Vemana University – Basic course 2017:
The course added a new dimension to my career, as my background is geography and my students were from Earth Sciences, Yogi Vemana University, Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, India. The DL course quenched my thirst for updating my skills and knowledge. I am satisfied that my students were inspired by my lectures and became active in projects for the improvement of hydrological services in neighbourhoods.
Vaseem Ashraf – Director, CWC – Basic course 2014 and advanced course 2015
Both the courses were useful as far as my job activities were concerned. The topics covered in the basic course were very much contemporary and relevant to my area of work.
Since I was involved in collection and dissemination of hydro-meteorological data of 22 hydrological sites in southern India, the final assignment relating to this was very helpful in gaining further insights on automation of such process.
In the advanced version of the course, the assignment on ENSO, MJO and the Indian Monsoon was instrumental in gaining insights about the various weather phenomena; this is intrinsically linked with the area of activities that our organization CWC is involved with.