Groundwater Prize


Dr. Tissa H. Illangasekare (Colorado School of Mines, USA).

Dr. Illangasekare has improved the fundamental understanding of fluid flow and chemical transport in porous media through innovative multi-scale experimentation and modelling, leading to the reliable prediction of the long‐term fate of pollutants in groundwater systems and the behaviour of multiple phase fluids in shallow and deep geologic formations.

His research on the fundamental understanding of the behaviour of multiphase fluids in heterogeneous porous media has addressed issues of the permanent storage of CO2 in deep geologic formations, with a focus on the trapping of CO2 and potential leakage to shallow aquifers. His work addresses the mathematical modelling of multi-phase flow, the effect of geologic heterogeneity in enhancing capillary and dissolution trapping of supercritical CO2, and a benchmark modelling study of CO2 gas evolution in groundwater systems.

Winner Profile

Dr. Tissa H. Illangasekare is AMAX Endowed Distinguished Chair of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and Professor of Civil Engineering, at the Colorado School of Mines, as well as the Founding Director of the Center for the Experimental Study of Subsurface Environmental Processes (CESEP). He is also a Research Affiliate in the Program for Applied Mathematics at the University of Colorado.


• Ph.D. 1978; Colorado State University, Civil Engineering.
• M.Eng. 1974; Asian Institute of Technology - Bangkok, Hydrology and Water Resources Engineering.
• B.Sc. 1971; University of Ceylon, Civil Engineering.

Selected Awards:

2015: AGU’s Bowie Lecture-Langbein Lecture Award for life-time contributions to hydrologic science
2012: Henry Darcy Medal from the European Geosciences Union
2011: Boland Hydrology Award, American Geophysical Union
2010: Honorary Doctorate in Natural Science and Technology, Uppsala University, Sweden
2010: President's Honor Award, Academic Excellence & Extracurricular Activities, Asian Institute of Technology
2010: Colorado School of Mines Senate Excellence in Research Award
2005: Best Research Project Award, SERDP/ESTCP (with B. Siegrist, M. Crimi and J. Marr)
1999: Karen Morehouse Best Paper Award from EPA Conference of Hazardous Waste Research
1993: Karen Morehouse Best Paper Award from EPA Conference of Hazardous Waste Research
1982-3: College of Engineering Award for Outstanding Research Faculty, Colorado State University
1981-2: Outstanding Performer, Research Faculty, Department of Civil Engineering, Colorado State University

Acceptance Speech

H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, H.R.H. Prince Khaled Bin Sultan Bin Abdualziz, Honorable Minster of Water, ambassadors and delegates from UN Friends of Water member states, and ladies and gentleman.

Coming from a small village in the hills of Sri Lanka, it has been a long journey for me to be standing here in front of this distinguished gathering that includes the other world-renowned scientists who are honored today. I am humbled and honored to accept this prestigious award recognizing my small contributions to the vast field of groundwater. His Royal Highness Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz was quite visionary in establishing these awards to recognize the importance of creative science to protect one of our most precious resources. His Excellency, the Secretary General, has pointed out that shortages of water contribute to poverty, social hardship, impede development, and create tensions in conflict-prone regions. As professionals and global citizens, we have a responsibility and a moral obligation to help sustain and protect this critical resource we all share. Prestigious prizes like these will motivate creative people to pursue research to develop innovative solutions to pressing water problems. I thank PSIPW Chairman H.R.H. Prince Khaled Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz and PSIPW for continuing this all-important effort. I would also like to thank the prize council and those scientists who supported my candidacy.

The challenges of the 21st century are driven by demands on diminishing natural resources that include water, dictated by the unsustainable lifestyles of a rapidly increasing world population. It is expected that every 13-14 years, the world’s population, which stood at of 7.3 billion in 2015, will increase by one billion people. Some alarming statistics show the level of demand for freshwater and the importance of clean water for human survival and health. Humans already use 54% of available freshwater. By 2023, the available water for the global population will decrease by 30%. In 2000, UNESCO estimated that the number of people that died because of low water quality exceeded 2.2 million. One in 10 of the world’s population lacks access to safe water. To meet these challenges of sustaining precious water resources, we must continually strive to explore the science and develop technologies for efficient use and protection of quality. Groundwater is central, and a primary feature of the global water picture, especially in the arid and coastal regions. Groundwater is 30.1% of freshwater on the globe. Surface water amounts to 1.2% and the rest, 68.7%, is stored in glaciers and icecaps. It is not well known that groundwater is the world’s most extracted raw material.

In the latter part of the last century, considerable scientific progress has been made in the core discipline of groundwater by improving the basic understanding of water flow and the fate and transport of contaminants. This new knowledge has led to modeling tools for efficient management, strategies for reducing overdraft, schemes for aquifer replenishment, better water quality monitoring, and schemes to reduce contamination risks. However, the complexities and challenges of the problems of this century require rapid progress in both basic and applied sciences associated with groundwater. Sea-level rise expected to be driven by climate change and overdraft that trigger saltwater intrusion will threaten aquifers in coastal areas where close to a billion people live. New industrial, agrochemical, consumer, pharmaceutical and healthcare products are introducing complex chemicals into the environment, threatening groundwater. Toxins in groundwater increasingly detected at very low concentrations using advanced instrumentation have been determined to produce significant health risks. A rapid transition to alternate energy from shale is requiring a need to understand the risks of surface and groundwater contamination by stimulant and production fluids and methane leakage. Storage of carbon dioxide in deep geologic formations to slow greenhouse gas loading to the atmosphere is requiring a need to assess the risks of gas and brine leakage on water quality in shallow aquifers used for potable water. Bare soil evaporation and evapotranspiration controlled by the coupled soil-water, groundwater, and atmospheric dynamics have to be better represented in global circulation models used in climate change predictions. Groundwater is central to water-energy and water-food security nexuses. The “new science” to address these problems requires groundwater scientists to work at multiple physical interfaces (e.g. aquifer/ocean, land/atmospheric) as well as at the interfaces of other core disciplines such as biological, atmospheric, environmental, climatic, ecological, health, and most importantly social sciences. The most exciting research opportunities and new discoveries are at these interdisciplinary interfaces.

To highlight the need for science at disciplinary interfaces, I would like to briefly present a problem that is affecting farming communities in Sri Lanka, a number of Central American countries (e.g., El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) and India. In 1994, an epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) was discovered among the rice paddy farmers in the North Central Province (NCP) of Sri Lanka, affecting a total population of 460,000 with 69,200 diagnosed cases and a death toll of around 22,000. Funded by the US National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, I visited Sri Lanka in August of this year with a team of multidisciplinary scientific experts from the US, Europe, and South America. It is our assessment, supported by local scientists that multiple factors with a dominant groundwater contamination dimension may be contributing to this disease. These factors include agrochemicals, naturally occurring fluoride and hardness, water distribution based on an ancient system of cascaded reservoirs and canals, genetic susceptibility, and social behavior, among others. The framework needed to address this problem requires research at the interfaces of natural, health, and social sciences. The funding agencies both in the developed and developing world must re-think their research investment strategies to direct resources to promote a culture of collaboration moving away from the comfort zones of individual discipline cores and towards research at disciplinary interfaces.

I have been very fortunate to work with and learn from outstanding students and I share this honor with them. I would like to thank the many who helped and guided my career: the people of Sri Lanka who supported my free education; my teachers at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya for the excellent undergraduate education that prepared me well to venture into many adventures in science and engineering; the Asian Institute of Technology, which has the mission of training engineers to solve applied problems in the region, for giving me the opportunity to work on issues that have a direct impact on people; Prof. Subin Pinkayan, my thesis advisor for introducing me to hydrology; Colorado State University, where I had the privilege to be educated by some of the world’s leading hydrologists and porous media scientists of the time; and my Ph.D. supervisor Prof. Morel-Seytoux who challenged me through the high expectations he placed on his students.

I thank my parents for instilling the value of education early in my life. I am grateful to my family, Mali, Samantha, Tushani, Gideon and Trevor for their love and support and their own commitment to public service. This recognition will motivate me to work harder to leave millions of children around the world that includes my two new grandchildren, Naveen-Lincoln and Sidney-Anula a better, and hopefully a cleaner world than I inherited.

I know this honor comes with the responsibility to use the knowledge and experience I have accumulated during my long academic and research career to continue to serve humanity to help sustain one of our most critical natural resources. I am very much committed to this cause.

It is with excitement, profound appreciation and humility that I accept this award on behalf my students, collaborators, research sponsors, and AMAX endowment at the Colorado School of Mines.

Tissa Illangasekare

Winning Work

1. Smits, K.M., Cihan, A., Sakaki, T. and Illangasekare, T. H., "Evaporation from soils under thermal boundary conditions: Experimental and modeling investigation to compare equilibrium- and nonequilibrium-based approaches" Water Resources Research, 47 (2011).

2. Phenrat, T, Cihan, A., Kim, H.J., Mital, M. Illangasekare, T., and Lowry, G.V., "Transport and Deposition of Polymer-Modified Fe-0 Nanoparticles in 2-D Heterogeneous Porous Media: Effects of Particle Concentration, Fe-0 Content, and Coatings" Environmental Science and Technology, 44:23 (2010).

3. Sakaki, T., O'Carroll, D.M., and Illangasekare, T.H., "Direct Quantification of Dynamic Effects in Capillary Pressure for Drainage-Wetting Cycles" Vadose Zone Journal, 9:2 (2010), pp. 424-437.

4. Trevisan, L., R. Pini, A. Cihan, J. T. Birkholzer, Q. Zhou, and T. H. Illangasekare. "Experimental analysis of spatial correlation effects on capillary trapping of supercritical CO2 at the intermediate laboratory scale in heterogeneous porous media" Water Resources Research (2015).

5. Poate, J., Illangasekare, T.H, H. Kazimi, R. Kee., "Pore Scale Phenomena- Frontiers in Energy and Environment" World Scientific (2015), pp. 482.

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