Prof Jay O'Keeffe

It is with sadness that we inform the Rhodes Community and the collaboration network of the Institute for Water Research (IWR) of the death of Emeritus Professor Jay O’Keeffe, former Director of the Institute (1991 to 2004) and recent Research Professor of the University.  Jay passed away in the early hours of Monday 31st December 2018 at his Port Alfred home, surrounded by his family, following a brave and good humoured battle with cancer.


Jay graduated with his PhD from Imperial College London, and joined Rhodes University in 1983 as a post-doctoral fellow in the then Institute for Freshwater Studies (IFWS), led at the time by Emeritus Professor Brian Allanson. Jay went on to become the Director of the IFWS (1988 to 1991), and in 1991, together with Emeritus Professor Denis Hughes, founded the Institute for Water Research – the amalgamation of the IFWS and the Hydrological Research Unit. Jay was a prodigious academic with an extensive international reputation. He was President of the Southern African Society for Aquatic Scientists (SASAQS, 1996 to 1999), and Programme Manager of the Kruger National Park Rivers Research Programme (1990 to 2000).  Jay was awarded the SASAQS Gold Medal in 2004, an award made rarely, in recognition of an exceptionally high standard of research in the aquatic sciences, and an exceptionally valuable contribution to the management, conservation or development of aquatic ecosystems over an extended period.


Moreover, Jay was a charming and charismatic person who was one of the global pioneers of the science of environmental flows – or E-flows as they have come to be known. His collaboration with Professor Denis Hughes brought hydrology, hydrological modelling and aquatic ecology together, and Jay became a catalyst around whom hydraulic modellers, geomorphologists, water quality specialists and a variety of aquatic ecologists grappled with how to use science to protect rivers while still using them.  This research became the prime motivating factor for the South African National Water Act of 1998, the first legislation globally to provide a legal right for E-flows, for which he is justifiably acclaimed, together with Professor Tally Palmer. 


In 2004 Jay moved to the Netherlands, taking up the WWF Freshwater Chair at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education (2004 to 2010). It was in this position that Jay became a global leader in E-flows training and implementation, and escalated his mentoring and post graduate supervision. He worked notably in East Africa and India, where he contributed substantively to the complex, multi-disciplinary initiative of establishing E-flows for the Upper Ganga River, taking account of the socio-cultural value of India's holy river. He retained a research associate relationship with the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes. Jay returned to Rhodes University in 2011 as an active Emeritus Professor, working from the Environmental Learning Research Centre, and collaborating with many at Rhodes University and beyond.  He remained research productive to the end, and is anticipated to be one of the supervisors of a graduating PhD candidate in our 2019 graduation ceremonies.


Jay was a long distance runner, a stalwart of the Drostdy Harriers Club;  to him, running was a space for both personal contemplation and connection with people. Conversations with Jay while running will be a treasured memory of many.  Jay’s great gift - to family, friends, colleagues, and students - was to be attentive and really interested in the other person, and to give generously of his vibrant and positive view of the world. He was an important mentor within the South African Aquatic Science community, and has an ongoing lineage of attentive post-graduate supervision in the Institute for Water Research. Family was always at the centre of Jay’s life and we feel keenly for his partner Dr Sue Southwood, and his children and grandchildren.


Jay will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. 




Last Modified: Fri, 18 Jan 2019 10:17:27 SAST