Focus on Desertification
With IAEA support, countries are using nuclear technologies to save drylands from degradation and drought
Desertification - the degradation of land in hot and dry areas - is a global problem that affects all regions of the world. The IAEA is contributing to action against the problem on many fronts. Through Agency scientific and technical programmes, countries are applying nuclear and related technologies techniques to help restore desertified lands and to prevent desertification from occurring in the first place.
"Drought and desertification threaten the livelihood of over one billion people in more than 110 countries around the world," says Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General. The UN General Assembly has designated 17 June each year as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, to recognize and encourage the need for more joint action by the international community.
Already over 250 million people are directly affected, mainly the world's poorest, most marginalized, and politically weak citizens. The most critical areas are in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean - and also in the Northern Mediterranean, Central and Eastern Europe.
Desertification does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts. It is caused primarily by human activities and climate change. It occurs because dryland ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation and inappropriate land use. Deforestation, overgrazing, and poor irrigation practices all undermine the land's productivity and exacerbate problems of water scarcity, famine, migration, and social breakdown. Combating desertification has become a crucial and urgent issue in fighting poverty and ensuring the long-term productivity of inhabited drylands.
Protecting Land at Risk
Desertification has left its greatest impact on Africa, where two-thirds of the continent today is desert or drylands. Estimates of African desertification show that 74% of rangeland, 61% of rain-fed cropland, and 18% of irrigated land are severely affected in the 33 countries of the region.
The IAEA has initiated a five-year project in the West African Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Senegal with three main strategies: sustainable agriculture intensification on the most suitable arable land; conversion of marginal lands to appropriate land uses, reducing and /or eliminating the extensive grazing of low-productivity rangelands; and restoration of degraded lands and ecosystems. Each country is developing a national action plan tailored to their specific situation and needs. The Agency is providing technical advice, assistance, and equipment related to nuclear techniques for water and integrated nutrient management.
- In Mali, for example, one project is studying the interaction between various plants, climate and fertilization over a three-year period. Stable isotope of nitrogen (nitrogen-15) fertilizers will be used to help determine the optimal growing conditions for sustainable agricultural production in this dryland area.
- Similarly in Senegal and Burkina Faso, local staff are being trained to use nitrogen-15 isotope techniques for field studies of nitrogen fixation in legumes and fertilizer use efficiency in cereals.
- In Latin America, an IAEA project is focusing on the control and prevention of soil degradation in the central-southern area of Chile. It seeks to integrate the management of soil, water, and nutrients using nuclear and related techniques.
Nuclear techniques can also be used to introduce beneficial genetic changes in plant varieties (cultivars). In Bangladesh, a project has been initiated to cultivate drought tolerant plants and improve soil moisture retention using nuclear techniques.
Farming on Marginal Soils
Another technique called "fertigation" can be used to improve water management and plant nutrition in arid and semi-arid regions. The Agency is supporting fertigation research in eight West Asian countries.
Using nuclear techniques to identify the best plant varieties that will grow in saline and marginal soils is also offering hope to farmers in Africa and Asia. In Morocco, salt-tolerant crops are successfully being grown with support from the Agency. A pioneering scientist is now transferring the techniques developed in Pakistan to grow crops using salty water.
Preventing desertification through improved water management practices is a key objective of the IAEA's Isotope Hydrology Programme. Isotope hydrology can help track the movement of water in underground and groundwater systems. By measuring the subtle changes in water molecules. This application of nuclear technology helps find new sources of water, better manage existing sources, and monitor changes in vulnerable areas.
Contributing to Progress
Combating desertification will require such innovations and a determined commitment at the local, national, and international levels. On 26 December 1996, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) entered into force. The Convention aims to promote effective action through innovative local programmes and supportive international partnerships. As of March 2002, a total of 179 countries are parties to the UNCCD.
Desertification is intrinsically linked with two key issues facing humanity - poverty and sustainable development. The World Summit on Sustainable Development being held in Johannesburg from 26 August to 2 September will examine global progress on those factors that contribute to sustainable human development, among them water, agriculture, and biodiversity. Through the use of nuclear techniques, the Agency is helping its Member States take concrete steps to address these issues as they strive for a more sustainable future.