On Feb. 24, Fisaha Unduche became Manitoba's third chief flood forecaster in four years, succeeding Phillip Mutulu. Unduche was born and raised in Ethiopia and did post-graduate work in Norway and the Netherlands before obtaining a PhD in water resource engineering from the University of Manitoba. The 38-year-old father of two worked as a senior water control systems planning engineer for the province for five years before being named its top flood forecaster, heading a team of 12. He spoke this week with Free Press reporter Larry Kusch.
FP: Did you really come to Manitoba after Googling the best places for studying water and flooding?
Unduche: Yes, that's actually true. When I finished school in the Netherlands, I wanted to continue my schooling further so I Googled universities across the world (where) I could specialize in water, water management, flooding and so on. Quite a few of them in North America showed up including (University of) Alberta and (University of) Manitoba. At that time, I didn't know where Alberta was, I didn't know where Manitoba was. I just knew that Canada is the best place in the world to live and that the education system of Canadians is way better than any other. So I applied to U of M and got accepted and the story started there.
FP: How did you get interested in water and fighting floods to begin with? Is there something in your early life that caused you to be interested in this?
Unduche: I grew up in southern Ethiopia in a place called Wolaita. It's about 350 kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa. When I was a little boy, I always wanted to be an engineer, but I didn't know what type of engineer. At that time there was a lot of drought in Ethiopia. I started to see that if you build a dam, it irrigates the land and feeds the people. There was an institute called the Arbaminch Water Technology Institute. It was established in southern Ethiopia. At that time, it was the first of its kind in East Africa. It only deals with water management. (From the time) I was in Grade 9 I knew that I wanted to go there, that's what I wanted. I joined that institute. I studied water engineering for five years. I graduated. I was a Gold Medal student.
FP: When you were hired by the province what was your first job here?
Unduche: At that time I was a senior water management engineer, dealing with flood management. I was responsible for flood management of Shoal Lakes and the Whitewater Lake area, for example. Serving complex water-management issues. Gradually, I came to the forecasting business, developing models to forecast water levels on lakes (and then for rivers).
FP: When you were interviewed for the chief flood forecaster's job and they said, 'Why should we hire you for this job?' what did you say?
Unduche: I said that for the past five years I've demonstrated my qualifications, my achievements, my hard work and my academic qualifications. Plus, I've learned about flooding on three continents -- North America, Africa and Europe. In addition, I've been working with the team here for five years and that would make me the best candidate for the job.
FP: What was your job like during the 2011 flood? What was it like to work under that kind of pressure?
Unduche: At times it was very stressful. I personally remember I had to skip family time, I had to skip church time. I had to skip so many things. Unfortunately, (the flood season) wasn't only for a week, it was for four months. It was really demanding. But there were other people who spent more time (at work) than me because they were the core forecasters at that time. I was forecasting lake levels, Shoal Lakes (in the Interlake), Whitewater Lake and Pelican Lake.
FP: You mentioned the 2011 flood taking you away from church?
Unduche: I go to Living Gospel Church on William Avenue. For the last 10 years I've been going there. I am actively involved in various services of the church. I also sing in the choir and play keyboards. I had to pull myself off from that because of the demanding work.
FP: What are some of your other interests outside of work?
Unduche: I like sports. I'm a soccer fan. British Premier League. I make sure I don't miss a soccer match. I record them to watch them later.
FP: What is your team?
Unduche: Arsenal. They're not doing the best now. (Laughs) I started to watch hockey the last few years. I watched the Vancouver Olympics, from the beginning to the end... I watch the Bombers when they do good... not all the time. (Laughs again.)
FP: What do you like best about Manitoba apart from the flooding and water issues?
Unduche: I like the people. People are so sociable. I travelled in Europe. I went to a number of countries in Europe just to visit different cultures. But really, people in Manitoba are so sociable. You can easily integrate into the society. You can easily make friends. The first month I came here I almost felt that it was like home. That's the part I like.
FP: What do you think your department learned from the 2011 flood? There were criticisms after the flood that the department employed faulty forecasting models and the flood seemed to catch forecasters by surprise.
Unduche: In my opinion, the 2011 flood was extreme in magnitude and extreme in volume. My personal opinion is no matter what equipment, no matter what technology you used, it was really a challenge. The (Manitoba 2011 Flood Review Task Force Report) also said that the team, with the existing equipment, did a very good job. Usually, we calibrate our (flood forecasting) models based on past events. So if there is a flood like 2011 in the next year or so, our models are now calibrated for that. We used the 2011 data to adjust our system. Since then, we've also hired three more new staff. We are in the process of adding more weather stations. We're also getting a number of hydrometric stations to measure lake and river flows. We also are testing new tools to enhance the efficiency of our forecasting.
FP: It doesn't look like 2014 is going to be a major flood year at this point. Is this a good year to 'get your feet wet' so to speak as the new chief flood forecaster?
Unduche: I think every year is challenging because we're required to give (water level) accuracy of this much (holds his hands a few centimetres apart), not this much (holds his hands 20 cm apart). But I agree with you, the fact that it's not 2011 or 1997 is way better (laughs).
FP: You're ready for this year?
Unduche: We're ready. I like a challenge. I like to be tested as a professional. This is my first year as the chief forecaster and as a leader. So I'm looking forward to the challenge.