Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitoba's top flood forecaster looks forward to the challenge

In Conversation with Fisaha Unduche

  • Print

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.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 0

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Key of Bart - Take It Easy

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A nesting goose sits on the roof of GoodLife Fitness at 143 Nature Way near Kenaston as the morning sun comes up Wednesday morning- See Bryksa’s Goose a Day Photo- Day 07- Web crop-May 09, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Hay bales sit under a rainbow just west of Winnipeg Saturday, September 3, 2011.(John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you like Gord Steeves’ idea to sell four city-owned golf courses to fund road renewal?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google