Groundwater Prize - 8th Award


Dr. Martinus Theodorus van Genuchten (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).

Dr. van Genuchten’s work focuses on the development and application of key theoretical and software tools that describe water flow and contaminant transport in soil and groundwater systems and, in doing so, help to define modern hydrogeology. Software tools include RETC, CXTFIT, STANMOD and especially the HYDRUS codes. The HYDRUS family of codes are now the industry standard for modelling variably-saturated flow and solute transport problems of all types. He also developed the van Genuchten functions, which are the standard for quantitative descriptions of the hydraulic properties of unsaturated porous media, including hydraulic conductivity. In addition, he developed the concept of mobile and immobile fluids to describe flow and transport processes in structured soils and fractured rock. Taken together, this work shows him to be one of the most influential vadose zone hydrologists in the world today.

Winner Profile

Dr. Martinus Theodorus van Genuchten

Dr. van Genuchten is Collaborating Professor at the Department of Nuclear Engineering, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is also Associate Scientist at the Department of Applied Geology, São Paulo State University and Visiting professor at the Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.


• 1975 - Ph.D. Soil Physics, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, USA • 1971 - M.S. Irrigation and Drainage, Wageningen University, Netherlands • 1968 - B.S. Irrigation and Drainage, Wageningen University, Netherlands

Selected Awards:

2017 - Interpore Time Capsule Award
2016 - Don and Betty Kirkham Soil Physics Gold Medal, Soil Science Society of America
2012 - Honorary Membership Award, International Society for Porous Media (Interpore)
2010 - John Dalton Medal, European Geosciences Union
2009 - Alumni and Friends Chapter Award, New Mexico College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
2005 - Dionys Štur SAS Medal of Honour for “Outstanding Achievements in the Natural Sciences”, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia
2001 - Technology Transfer Award, USDA, ARS
2001 - Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) Excellence in Technology Transfer Award
1998 - Don and Betty Kirkham Soil Physics Award, Soil Science Society of America (first recipient)
1996 - Outstanding Senior Research Scientist of the Year, USDA
1996 - Soil Science Research Award, Soil Science Society of America, SSSA

Acceptance Speech

unhq300x300 Dear Ladies and Gentlemen. First of all, I want to congratulate Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz for initiating and sponsoring the International Prize for Water, as well as thank those responsible for my selection for the Groundwater Prize. It surely is an enormous honor for me to be here, in this very select group of recipients whom I all very much admire for their work. It is special also to receive this prize at UN Headquarters since I have had in the past several UN assignments, mostly through the FAO for looking at the problems of irrigation and soil salinity in arid and semi-arid areas.

Receipt of the prize is certainly very satisfying personally since it acknowledges the work we did over the years on water flow and contaminant transport processes in the subsurface, especially during my stay at the U.S. Salinity Laboratory in Riverside, CA, but later also in Brazil and elsewhere. As such, much credit goes to the many, many people I have worked with during my career. But equally important to me is the fact that the prize reflects awareness that this planet of us is facing increasingly serious challenges about fresh water scarcity, the pollution problems involved, and the occurrence of natural or other disasters with water.

In terms of my own work, these challenges relate to our understanding and management of near-surface processes (in broad terms involving the unsaturated zone, often referred to also as the critical zone or vadose zone, and its connection with groundwater and the atmosphere). We have been changing the surface of this planet, for better or worse, in unprecedented ways, often by poor soil and water management and the introduction of an array of chemical contaminants. My work initially focused mostly on agricultural contaminants (such as salinity, pesticides, nutrients, pathogenic microorganisms, and various trace elements), but later also concerned industrial and other contaminants (such as those stemming from mining and milling activities, hormones, pharmaceuticals, radionuclides, and a range of metals).

As such, think about the problems of fresh water scarcity and pollution our planet is now facing increasingly. My personal views about the future in all of this are very split. On the one hand we are facing tremendous problems. For example, worldwide about 2 billion ha of land is enormously degraded (15% of agricultural lands) by salinization, point and non-point source pollution, landfills, mining waste and unregulated deforestation, while urban pollution is rampant in many parts of the world (for example more than 1.5 billion people have no access to safe drinking water; and 3 billion people no sanitation). Also, please note that available fresh water per capita per year has been decreasing steadily, from more than 20,000 m3/year in 1950, to about 7500 in 2010, and going to only about 5000 m3/year in 2020 (a 4-fold decrease in only 70 years). Also that per capita arable land has been decreasing from nearly 0.4 ha in 1970 to 0.25 in 1995, to an estimate of only about 0.15 ha in 2050. That in the meantime competition is increasing between agricultural, municipal, industrial, ecological, and recreational users, that agriculture by necessity is using 70-80% of all fresh water (in some developing areas 85-95%), that 0.5 million ha is lost per year to salinization, and that many other areas suffer from high metal and other pollutants (such as As, Hg, Se, …). Looking at these numbers, the prospects for the future are in my view very worrisome. Not necessarily in 10 or 20 years from now, but in 50 or 100 years when the grandchildren of our grandchildren are growing up.

At the same time, I am also optimistic in that so much has being learned the past several decades, and the energy and creativity with which these problems are now being tackled. When I look back at the 30 or 40 years of research I have been involved with, I am amazed how much we now know about the basic physical, chemical and biological processes affecting water on this planet, including our analytical, experimental and numerical capabilities, from the nanoscale to the global scale. We have come up with advanced theories and software that account for these processes to enable improved analysis, design and implementation of site-specific irrigation, desalinization, and improved management and remediating technologies. The state of the art has indeed been increasing exponentially, as well as the implementation of technology transfer activities to ensure that the acquired knowledge emanates across disciplinary, geographic, institutional and cultural barriers. Most of all, our awareness about the problems we are facing has been increasing, including pertinent socio-economic and political aspects. Still, it remains to be seen if the solutions we propose and try to implement stay ahead of the ever-increasing environmental problems we face on this planet. I am not the most optimistic in all of this in terms of us surviving on this planet. As everything is accelerating tremendously, will our solutions remain ahead of our problems? Clearly, we have some work to do!

As such, again, I congratulate Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz for initiating and sponsoring these prizes, which are providing much-needed visibility to the fresh water problems we face, and encouraging solutions through innovative research and management. My congratulations to you and to the UN (including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) for institutionalizing these awards. Last but not least, I thank my wife and two kids, who are here, for their support over the years and, again, the countless people I have had the fortune to work with during my career in the US, Brazil and Holland, and many other places in the world.

Thank you so much!!

-- Martinus Th. van Genuchten

Winning Work

[1] Pontedeiro, E.M., P.F. Heilbron, J. Perez-Guerrero, J. Su, and M.Th. van Genuchten. 2018. Reassessment of the Goiânia radioactive waste repository in Brazil using HYDRUS-1D. J. Hydrol. Hydromech., 66, doi: 10.1515/johh-2017-0047.

[2] de Vries, E.T., A. Raoof, and M.Th. van Genuchten. 2017. Multiscale modeling of dual-porosity media; a computational pore-scale study for flow and solute transport. Adv. Water Resour. 105, 82-95.

[3] Simunek, J., M.Th. van Genuchten, and M. Sejna. 2016. Recent developments and applications of the HYDRUS computer software packages. Vadose Zone J. 15 (doi:10.2136/vzj2016.04.0033).

[4] van Genuchten, M. Th., and P. J. Wierenga. 1976. Mass transfer studies in sorbing porous media: I. Analytical solutions. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J., 40(4): 473-480.

[5] van Genuchten, M. Th. 1980. A closed-form equation for predicting the hydraulic conductivity of unsaturated soils. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J., 44(5): 892-898.

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