B. Merz

Professor Bruno Merz is the recipient of the 2020 Volker Medal (International Hydrology Prize) of IAHS/UNESCO/WMO

The citation reads “for pioneering contributions to flood risk research”.  

Citation for Bruno Merz by Günter Blöschl

Prof. Bruno Merz of the German Research Centre for Geosciences Potsdam has transformed the field of flood risk research and practice by introducing an integrated framework of combined vulnerability and hazard assessment. He spearheaded his new framework through four main avenues.  

First, Bruno proposed and implemented a new, comprehensive vulnerability approach that accounts for the psychological, socio-economic and physical factors of a flood disaster. He devised a revolutionary strategy for telephone based, internet aided questionnaires for polling private households and businesses. Based on the unique data base so obtained, Bruno developed multi-factor damage models that are more accurate than past models as they account for a multitude of controls. 

Second, Bruno substantially contributed to understanding how humans behave during flood crises. For the first time, he provided quantitative proof of the importance of private precautions for loss reduction, both for companies and private households, and he found out how societies learn from disasters by conducting surveys over two decades. 

Third, Bruno also has had a huge impact on flood hazard research, in particularly on understanding and projecting changes in flood hazard. He developed a novel attribution approach and demonstrated its value in understanding the role of Monsoon and hydropower development for flood changes of the Mekong and other rivers around the world.

Fourth, Bruno brought all his research strands together and implemented his integrated framework of combined vulnerability and hazard assessment through a consistent flood risk modelling approach. He was probably the first to validate an integrated flood risk estimation model against independent, observed data from insurances and government agencies. The policy recommendations of his lessons-learned study heavily influenced policy drafting such as the German flood management standards (DIN 19700) and the EU Flood Directive. 

On a personal note, having collaborated with Bruno on and off over the past 25 years, I have always been impressed by his uncanny ability to connect the dots. His ability to see patterns where others see disorder. Perhaps equally impressive is his calmness and collectedness in any situation. Both traits, I think, that make him a wonderful colleague and friend.

In summary, Professor Bruno Merz’s fundamental contributions and his demonstrated influence on the field give him a stature that makes him eminently worthy of the 2020 Dooge Medal. 

Response by Bruno Merz

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

I feel deeply honoured to receive the Volker Medal from IAHS, UNESCO and WMO. When I was informed that I had been selected as recipient of the 2020 Volker Medal I was excited, but could hardly share my excitement as this was one of my first days in home-office.  The other feeling was gratitude towards people that inspired, guided and supported me. My first mentor was Erich Plate who was convinced to his heart that science will make a better world. Working with Andras Bardossy I could observe the joy of doing research, of coding and of finding sense in data. And then I was lucky to meet Günter Blöschl early in my career; since then I have benefited immensely from our exchange and from his way of posing the right questions. Another lucky turn in my career was when I started to work at GFZ, the German Research Centre for Geosciences. At that time, I was the only hydrologist at GFZ, and thus an outlier among solid Earth scientists. However, being an outlier served me well: whenever there was a question about water, my solid Earth colleagues wanted to have me involved, as they thought that I understood water. So, I could found the section Hydrology exactly 20 years ago, and the best of it was that I could hire a few people. Some of these hires turned out to be fantastic and some of them are still working with me in Potsdam. Three of these fantastic people are here today: Heidi Kreibich, Heiko Apel and Sergiy Vorogushyn. Thanks a lot to you, and to my current and former colleagues who are not here today, for your open and inspiring attitude and wonderful work.  

The Volker medal is meant to recognise outstanding applications of hydrological science for the benefit of society. Actually, I am in doubt whether I do deserve this medal: My team has worked for 20 years in flood risk, with numerous projects in Germany. But last summer we have witnessed dramatic flooding in western Germany with 180 people dying and 30 billion € of loss. So, a crucial question is: Why did this disaster occur, after decades of intensive flood research? And more generally, why do similar disasters occur again and again? I offer three hypotheses: First: We, as hydrological research community, do not have the knowledge to guide society in many instances. Our models and assessments still do not capture the messiness of reality. Second: We do have sufficient knowledge to impede such disasters, but the science-policy interface and knowledge transfer are deficient. And third: The main problem resides with society at large: In the end, it's about money, power, greed and the own advantage. The answer to this question is important, because it defines our roles. In the first case, we have to work towards better models of our messy world, seeking closer integration with, for instance, social scientists and psychologists. In the second case, we have to invest more in our interactions with society, which means for many of us to step out of our research comfort zone. In the third case, we have a role to play as citizens; we are not only hydrologists but also citizens who need to stand up for solidarity, sharing and empathy. And as scientists are trusted and have a high reputation (at least that is what recent surveys found in Germany), being scientist is a privilege but at the same time a mandate to use this trust well and use it for building a better world.  

Again, I would like to deeply thank IAHS, UNESCO and WMO, and I would like to thank Jan Szolgay who led the nomination. Thank you!

Bruno Merz

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