Sutcliffe, John V.

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John Sutcliffe


John Vernon Sutcliffe 21 August 1925 - 29 September 2019


Dr John Sutcliffe was born into an Anglo-Irish family in London in where his father was a Church of Ireland clergyman. John was mortified that he had not been born in Ireland and always thought of himself as a proud Irishman, particularly where international rugby was concerned. His father’s work took John to Shanghai as a young boy and he was later educated at Cheam and Marlborough College. In 1943 he volunteered to join the Enniskillen Fusiliers and served part of his time in India and Pakistan, and later admitted he was quite grateful when the Japanese surrendered so that he and his men did not have to go and fight them in Burma.

John started a mathematics degree course at Jesus College Cambridge but although doing well in his Part I exams had become ‘bored’ with maths and switched to a geography and surveying course from which he graduated with an MA in 1950. This change of course led to a job as a surveyor on the Jonglei Investigation team as team leader mapping the upper reaches of the Sudd, a major swamp area on the Nile in Sudan between 1950 and 1954, often having to lead his team wading chest deep though papyrus in order to obtain suitable transects. He was ahead of his time in the 1950s, using the ecology of the Nile to distinguish between seasonal and permanently flooded areas of the Sudd to support hydrological understanding of the area. Later he and Yvonne Parks theoretically demonstrated that local grazing could be supported or wiped out according to different canal withdrawal regimes, whilst still fulfilling the canal’s objectives of reducing evaporative losses in the Sudd and increasing downstream water availability. He returned to Cambridge and gained a PhD in 1957 following further analysis of the impact of the annual flooding in the Nile on the Sudd and on its ecology.

John Sutcliffe surveying channel cross-sections in the Sudd

He subsequently joined Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners (SAGP) as a hydrologist working on water resource and flood problems for projects in Iran, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria and Pakistan. Although SAGP were essentially a civil engineering consultancy they had a forward looking approach to how the relatively young science of hydrology might be useful to them and in 1960 sent John to an IAHS Symposium in Helsinki to present two papers on his work with SAGP. During this symposium John met Eamonn Nash, a leading figure in UK hydrology at that time, and subsequently John was seconded by SAGP to act as Technical Secretary to a Committee of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) which was considering future hydrological research needs of the UK.

Committee recommendations led to the formation of the Hydrological Research Unit (HRU) in 1962 as an offshoot of the Hydraulics Research Station (HRS, now HR Wallingford) with Eamonn Nash as Director. HRU initially had a very small staff of just 8 including John Rodda, who was responsible for catchment research work at HRS and John Sutcliffe who had practical experience of hydrological surveys and the research needs of the engineering community gained from his time at SAGP. In 1964 Nash returned to Ireland to take up a position at the University of Galway and was replaced as Head of the HRU by Jim McCulloch. In 1965 government reorganisation resulted in transfer of the HRU to the newly formed Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which, because of the growing importance of hydrological research, became in 1968 the Institute of Hydrology (IH). Hydrological research developed rapidly in the following decades as the number of staff at IH rose to around 150 by the mid 1970s maintaining both studies in hydrological processes and under John’s leadership, hydrological applications.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

In 1970 John co-authored a seminal paper on river flow forecasting models with Eamonn Nash where they proposed the Nash-Sutcliffe goodness of fit coefficient that is even today one of the most widely referenced efficiency tests used by modellers (Nash, J.E. and Sutcliffe, J.V., 1970, ‘River flow forecasting through conceptual models part I – A discussion of principles’, Journal of Hydrology, 10(3), 282-290).

A major impetus for the latter flowed from a meeting held at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) back in 1959 to consider flood problems in the UK, particularly those affecting reservoirs. Following this, and a further meeting in 1965, ICE Council set up the Paton committee, on which John served as DSIR representative, to seek views and set out specific recommendations for how current flood estimation methods could be improved. The outcome of this process was the UK Flood Studies, funded by NERC, and undertaken by a team of 15 hydrologists plus temporary support staff at IH with John as its head. Through John’s efforts the study included not only data from the UK but also from the Republic of Ireland as he believed that the island of Ireland must be treated as a hydrological entity. The resulting 5-volume Flood Studies Report (FSR) was published in 1975 and became the standard approach to flood estimation in the UK for over 25 years. However, fuelled by the availability of longer rainfall and streamflow records the FSR was superseded in 1999 by an update led by IH, the Flood Estimation Handbook (FEH). Although not directly involved in this update, John’s comments and advice were sought from time to time and greatly appreciated by the FEH team.

Following publication of the FSR John encouraged the formation at IH of a group primarily concerned with the providing hydrological consulting services to consulting engineering firms and to bodies such as the World Bank and regional development banks. This enabled the research work done on rainfall-runoff modelling, statistical analysis and, later, the methodologies derived in the Floods Team to be applied to major water resources and flood design schemes around the world. Building upon such consultancy, John encouraged IH colleagues to develop statistical flood estimation techniques using data from over 70 countries leading to prediction methods being published in a series of papers.

Though John retired from IH in 1985 he continued his involvement in several studies of Lake Victoria long after he had retired from IH and his knowledge and experience of the Nile basin contributed to the value of various consulting reports. During his career John published two books. The first arose from his passion for the Nile - the definitive and well received, ‘The Hydrology of the Nile’ (Sutcliffe and Parks 1999). The second in 2004, ‘A Question of Balance’, reviewed many of the consultancy problems he had worked on during his career. This second book was John's gentle encouragement to hydrologists to understand the basic concepts of water balance of an area/project before relying on more complex models for hydrological answers. This at a time when a stochastic component to modelling was almost de rigueur. John could usually spot a hydrological project taking a wrong turn by jotting a few numbers on the back of an envelope. He also authored and co-authored over 80 papers, and I was lucky enough to be co-author for 12 of those, which fact contributed in no small measure to my promotion prospects at IH/CEH.

The collaboration between John and Julia Shaw, on ancient water resources in India, explored whether an understanding of water resources by Buddhist monks underpinned the development and spread of Buddhism. The linking of anthropology with hydrology to investigate development of tanks (reservoirs) in India and Sri Lanka again illustrates John's lifelong capacity to think about his subject in unconventional ways.

And, in a nice circular conclusion to his academic career, his final paper published only last year (Sutcliffe, J.V. and Brown, E.L, 2018, ‘Water losses from the Sudd’, Hydrological Sciences Journal, Vol 63, Issue 4, pp527-541) revisited the relationship between Nile flows and vegetation distribution in the Sudd and the potential impacts upon any future proposals for the Jonglei Canal project.

There is no question that all of us who had the privilege of working with John appreciate the part that he played in the development of our professional careers. It was always a pleasure to work with him where his ‘light touch’ leadership allowed junior colleagues to follow their initiative whilst still keeping an eye on matters. He took an active interest in all the projects being undertaken at any time and would happily contribute to discussions whenever his experience was needed. His wry sense of humour and mischievous approach to ‘authority’ initially took some getting used to, although his deep understanding of ‘how hydrology really worked’ was a lesson to all he worked with and was very greatly appreciated.

Frank Farquharson (with inputs by Mike Lowing, Max Bevan, David Plinston, Yvonne Parks and Emma Brown)

Selected Publications[edit]

Jonglei, 1954, The Equatorial Nile Project and its effects in the Anglo-Investigation Team Egyptian Sudan, Sudan Government, London, 4 vols, 1077 pp.

Sutcliffe, J.V., 1966. The assessment of random errors in areal rainfall estimation. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 11(3), pp.35-42.

Nash,JE & Sutcliffe,JV, 1970 River flow forecasting through conceptual models: Part I- a discussion of principles, J Hydrol, 10, 282-290.

O'connell, P.E., Nash, J.E. and Farrell, J.P., 1970. River flow forecasting through conceptual models part II-The Brosna catchment at Ferbane. Journal of Hydrology, 10(4), pp.317-329.

Mandeville, A.N., O'connell, P.E., Sutcliffe, J.V. and Nash, J.E., 1970. River flow forecasting through conceptual models part III-The Ray catchment at Grendon Underwood. Journal of Hydrology, 11(2), pp.109-128.

Beran, M.A. and Sutcliffe, J.V., 1972. An index of flood-producing rainfall based on rainfall and soil moisture deficit. Journal of Hydrology, 17(3), pp.229-236.

Flood Studies Reports, 1975, Natural Environment Research Council, London, 5 vols, 1248 pp.

Piper,BS Plinston,DT & Sutcliffe,JV, 1986 The water balance of Lake Victoria, Hydrol. Sci. J., 31, 25-37.

Sutcliffe, J.V., 1987. The use of historical records in flood frequency analysis. Journal of hydrology, 96(1-4), pp.159-171.

Farquharson,F, Green,CS, Meigh,JR & Sutcliffe,JV, 1987, Comparison of flood frequency curves for many different regions of the world, in: Regional Flood Frequency Analysis (ed. VP Singh), Reidel, 223-256.

Sutcliffe, J.V. and Parks, Y.P., 1987. Hydrological modelling of the Sudd and Jonglei Canal. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 32(2), pp.143-159.

Sutcliffe, J.V., Dugdale, G. and Milford, J.R., 1989. The Sudan floods of 1988. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 34(3), pp.355-364.

Meigh,JR , Sutcliffe,JV & Farquharson,F, 1993, Prediction of flood risks in developing countries with sparse river flow data, in: Natural Disasters: Protecting Vulnerable Communities(eds PA Merriman & CWA Browitt), Thomas Telford, 315-330.

Farquharson, F.A.K., Plinston, D.T. and Sutcliffe, J.V., 1996. Rainfall and runoff in Yemen. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 41(5), pp.797-811.

Sutcliffe,JV & Parks,YP, 1996, Hydrological controls of Sudd ecology, in: Water Management and Wetlands in Sub-Saharan Africa (ed. by MC Acreman & GE Hollis), 51-72, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Tate, E.L., Sene, K.J. and Sutcliffe, J.V., 2001. A water balance study of the upper White Nile basin flows in the late nineteenth century. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 46(2), pp.301-318.

Sutcliffe, JV 2004 Hydrology: A Question of Balance. IAHS Special Publ. 7, IAHS Press, Wallingford.

Tate,EL, Sutcliffe,JV, Conway,D & Farquharson,F, 2004, Water balance of Lake Victoria: update to 2000 and climate change modelling to 2100, Hydrol. Sci. J., 49(4), 563-574.

Sutcliffe, J.V. and Petersen, G., 2007. Lake Victoria: derivation of a corrected natural water level series/Lac Victoria: dérivation d'une série naturelle corrigée des niveaux d'eau. Hydrological Sciences Journa, 52(6), pp.1316-1321.

Petersen, G., Sutcliffe, J.V. and Fohrer, N., 2008. Morphological analysis of the Sudd region using land survey and remote sensing data. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms: The Journal of the British Geomorphological Research Group, 33(11), pp.1709-1720.

Sutcliffe, J.V., 2009. The hydrology of the Nile Basin. In The Nile (pp. 335-364). Springer, Dordrecht.

Robinson, M., Rodda, J.C. and Sutcliffe, J.V., 2013. Long‐term environmental monitoring in the UK: origins and achievements of the Plynlimon catchment study. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38(3), pp.451-463.

Brown, E. and Sutcliffe, J.V., 2013. The water balance of Lake Kyoga, Uganda. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 58(2), pp.342-353.

Sutcliffe, J.V. and Brown, E.L, 2018, ‘Water losses from the Sudd’, Hydrological Sciences Journal, Vol 63, Issue 4, pp527-541


For those interested in more information Professor Keith Beven filmed a very informative lengthy interview with John Sutcliffe in the summer of 2018 as part of his History of Hydrology series. This can be viewed on YouTube: