Feature Stories

The IAEA in Action

World Water Day 2000 focused attention squarely on the urgency of finding ways to avert what some experts see as a world water crisis. From 17-22 March, leading national and international authorities met in the Netherlands at the Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference. Hundreds of water specialists, scientists, researchers, and policymakers attended the event, including experts from the IAEA who reviewed how the Agency is contributing to the fight against water shortages.

As the new millennium opens, water issues have intensified, not faded, bringing renewed calls for greater international action.

Overall, the IAEA is supporting dozens of national, regional, and interregional projects in developing countries that involve the use of safe and efficient nuclear techniques for solving serious water problems. Just over $7 million is being invested through field and research projects that are documenting groundwater resources in arid countries, cutting water losses in reservoirs, or supporting work to clean up polluted rivers and lakes. The work is leading to new insights about how water resources are formed, used, and managed – often providing "missing links" of data to improve our understanding of earth’s water lifelines.

Dwindling supplies and unequal distribution of freshwater resources are among the major problems being faced. Difficult challenges are ahead. In many countries, including industrialized ones, problems are becoming more acute, as water demand rises and more people move to expanding urban areas. In short, the need for safe, clean drinking water is growing as fast as the world’s population. Experts agree that, if nothing is done today, two-thirds of the world's people will suffer from moderate to severe lack of water by the year 2025. Problems increasingly could cross national borders, and the United Nations foresees the chance of a serious world water shortage by 2010 that could trigger conflicts. The sobering outlook is bringing more countries and international organizations together in new ways. As they forge partnerships for sustainable water development, they are pooling expertise and limited resources on several fronts, including the use of nuclear science and related technologies.

A large part of the earth's water resources is not safe, clean or renewable, and finding new reserves is costly. Often, the technology is not yet at hand to economically benefit from potential resources locked deep inside the earth's crust. Greater steps are needed to conserve and use water more efficiently – and to more fully apply the proven tools that are at hand to understand and manage earth’s resources. Solutions will not come cheaply or easily – the World Bank has estimated that about $600 billion needs to be invested in water delivery systems alone.

Improving Knowledge About Water Cycles

water samplingWater-saving measures include improving irrigation techniques and preventing water losses as high as 40% from transportation, distribution, and storage systems. At the core of solutions stands our knowledge of earth's water cycle, and how freshwater resources are renewed. A longstanding network of monitoring stations the IAEA runs with the World Meteorological Organization collects key data on the isotope content of rainwater. They are used for regional and global circulation models. Analysts can investigate how the earth's changing climate affects the sustainability of our water resources. The pioneering databank today serves as an established resource base that can lead to greater understanding of how earth's dynamic cycles recreate and renew our water supplies.

The application of atoms for water development is nothing new, and the IAEA long has stood at the scientific forefront in the use of isotope techniques in hydrology. In recent years, the IAEA's 130 Member States have formed a common bond on water issues, adopting resolutions at their annual General Conference that emphasize key concerns and ways in which nuclear and related tools can contribute to solutions. Resolutions focus on assisting States in the greater use of isotope techniques for water resource management and development, as well as on the feasibility of applying nuclear energy in projects for desalting seawater.

Model Projects for Technical Cooperation

For the IAEA's technical support cadre, new challenges are being seen at local, national, and regional levels. Work has correspondingly intensified to strengthen national capabilities for assessing, monitoring, and preserving water resources. Central aims are to assist water authorities in using isotope techniques to improve the efficiency of water use, identify and prevent sources of pollution, and map the birth and life expectancy of groundwater resources already being tapped.

Some 150 technical cooperation projects were put into action over the past decade to assist more than 60 countries in water-related areas. In the process, hundreds of young scientists have been trained to apply isotopes in investigations to improve the management of water and other natural resources in these countries.

Today, the IAEA is emphasizing the formation of national and regional Model Projects that are closely tied to national development goals, forge working partnerships to address specific needs, and build upon the expertise and technology already developed in the field. In Africa, for example, regional Model Projects involving about 20 countries are achieving practical results in helping countries to accurately assess and soundly manage their limited water resources.

Through these and other efforts, nuclear technologies have helped the world make strides to bring water to more people. Every step counts. Taken together, the world’s collective efforts in the 1990s saw nearly 800 million more people gain access to safe drinking water.