Global water supply crisis informs research of WMU professor named American Association of Geographers Fellow

Contact: Melissa Priebe


A portrait of Chansheng He in front of a large lake and mountains.

Dr. Chansheng He

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—There’s an urgency to academic research for Dr. Chansheng He, a professor and researcher of water resources management at Western Michigan University.

“We are facing a global water supply crisis,” says He. “Over two billion people have no access to safe drinking water, and floods and droughts such as the 2021 drought in the Colorado River and the 2021 floods in China and Europe continue to cause large economic losses.”

At a rigorous pace, He has been working to address these issues, research the roots of the problem and propose real-world solutions that provide access to clean water in affected areas. In honor of his achievements, He has been named a 2022 Fellow of the American Association of Geographers.

“Climate change and unprecedented human activities have drastically altered the water cycles and distribution of water resources across the globe. Understanding and mitigating how such changes affect water resources over different spatial and temporal scales are essential to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” says He.

Fighting for clean water

He earned a bachelor's degree in agronomy and a master's in agricultural zoning and natural resources management from Northwestern Agricultural University in his native China, before coming to the U.S. to earn a doctoral degree in resource development.

Early in his career, He participated in many water quality projects, studying natural resource management and water quality models that could track the sources of the pollutants such as fertilizer, manure, pesticide applications and combined sewer overflows.

His research interests were shaped by his experiences in the field, where he found people struggling to find clean water in both regions of China and parts of the U.S. During those years, he took field trips to the semi-arid region of the loess plateau in northern China, and what he witnessed changed his career.

“I observed higher crop yields and incomes for villagers with irrigated cropland than those in identical rainfed cropland. I also learned that the farmers fought for sources of irrigation water,” says He. “Those experiences showed me the paramount importance of water supply for agricultural irrigation, leading me to pursue my graduate studies in agricultural irrigation for improving crop production and farmers’ income.”

Now, He is an accomplished geographer and a distinguished faculty scholar at Western. He combines data collection through remote sensing with GIS analysis, data management and modeling to link data at various spatial scales. He takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from fields across the social and physical sciences to address how land management affects water resources.

He has developed water resource management programs and water quality models to provide solutions in the U.S. and across the globe. He developed a GIS-nonpoint source pollution modeling interface, called ArcView Nonpoint Source Modeling, that has been used in 12 countries.

In collaboration with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, he also developed the Distributed Large Basin Runoff Model, a physically-based, distributed hydrological simulation model. The model has been successfully applied to more than 40 of the Great Lakes watersheds in North America, as well as Northwest China and other countries.

Answering the most important question

Dr. He discovered his passion for academic work and higher education while he was studying in his doctoral program.

“During my Ph.D. program, one of my professors stated that ‘As a professor, you have to profess in your field.’ That statement led me to ponder, ‘What do I profess? What are my strengths? How can I make a difference in my discipline?’” says He. “As a professor, I want both to discover and transmit knowledge to stimulate, nurture and challenge students’ minds.”

With this advice, He was determined to become a well-qualified scholar and professor so that he could serve his students, his profession, and the global community.

“I tell both my undergraduate and graduate students that to solve a problem, you first have to identify what your problem is. Thus, analyzing, identifying and formulating a research problem is even more important and challenging."

Not only does he publish frequently, but he encourages his students to publish their ideas in national and international journals, too.

“It is just so rewarding to see a student progress and become an aspiring young professional, scholar and leader.”

Protecting water into the future

In the coming year, He plans to collaborate with colleagues in different countries to test, modify and refine the watershed science framework.

“Scholars have stated the global water crisis is a governance crisis and that the missing link is effective interactions between researchers and decision makers at different scales,” says He. “Since the watershed is the natural unit for water resources management, we have proposed watershed science to bridge this missing link.”

He is also researching the impacts of large-scale vegetation restoration (LVR) programs, such as reforestation and afforestation, or establishing forests on new lands.

“LVRs have been promoted globally to mitigate climate change and improve ecosystem services. Yet, little is known about the trade-offs of LVR on ecosystem services, regional climate, and water resources, particularly in water-stressed regions,” says He. “I will be working with international colleagues to identify a set of research priorities to address the trade-offs of LVR, maximize benefits, and prevent unexpected hydrological consequences.”

He has published over 100 articles and papers in leading national and international journals, including the Journal of Hydrology, Water Resources Research, Landscape and Urban Planning, Environmental Modeling and Software, and Geographical Analysis, Journal of Hydrologic Engineering, to name a few. He also serves on the editorial boards of several international journals such as Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, Geography and Sustainability, Science China Earth Sciences, and Chinese Geographical Sciences.

“I am really honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” He says.

He has received many honors, including Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fulbright Senior Specialist Awards, and the U.S. National Research Council and NOAA Senior Research Associatecship Award. He has also served as a member of the Steering Committee of Commission for Water Sustainability for the International Geographical Union. Now, he will add AAG Fellow to the list.

“Professor Chansheng He is an outstanding scholar, whose contribution to the field of water resources management has been widely recognized both in the U.S. and around the world,” said Dr. Benjamin Ofori-Amoah, department chair. “His standing as an internationally recognized scholar in his field has brought much pride and recognition to the Department of Geography, Environment, and Tourism at Western Michigan University and beyond. The faculty, staff and students of the WMU Department of Geography, Environment, and Tourism are extremely honored to have him as our colleague and teacher.”

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