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Water, Atoms and Life

IAEA Helps Countries Assess and Manage Water Resources

Water

The IAEA is helping countries from Africa, the Middle East and Asia to use nuclear-based techniques to assess and manage their water resources. (Photo: IAEA)

Water is an essential resource that underpins life on earth, a vital resource for all known forms of life. From the largest mammals to the smallest organism, living creatures cannot develop or survive without water.

Through its Technical Cooperation Programme, the IAEA provides states with information and skills in the peaceful application of nuclear technologies to better understand and manage their water resources and their environment.

Technical Cooperation projects around the world support crop improvement using biotechnology, mutation breeding techniques, innovative soil-water-cropping management technologies, irrigation optimization and isotope hydrology.

In Libya, for example, nuclear techniques helped identify proper "fertigation" management resulting in tremendous savings in water and fertilizer use. Fertigation, the process of applying fertilizers through a drip-irrigation system, can efficiently control the flow of water and nutrients to the roots of plants. For Libya, this process helped increase potato yield by 150% and halved water and nitrogen use.

In Algeria, the fast rate of soil and water salinization drastically reduces the amount of arable land and contributes to desertification. Using nuclear techniques, an IAEA-assisted project is helping develop appropriate irrigation, drainage, soil and crop management practices so that preventive and corrective measures can be taken.

In Bangladesh, soil and water salinity along coastal areas where rice is planted is a continuing challenge. Through an IAEA technical cooperation project, a new integrated technology that estimates soil and water content was tested. This allows for timely introduction of brackish water to maximize intake by plants. The project also introduced the use of isotopic techniques to assess the tolerance of different crops to different ranges of soil and water salinity during the fallow period.

Also in Bangladesh, safe drinking water is also identified through nuclear techniques in a country where the main water source - groundwater of the deltaic basin - is often contaminated with arsenic, resulting in major public health crises.

In China, scientists from 12 countries recently gathered to evaluate a range of conventional and isotopic techniques that can measure quantities of water lost to soil evaporation and plant transpiration, a process known as evapotranspiration (ET). This helps farmers find better and more efficient ways to use water by increasing transpiration and reducing evaporation. With support from the IAEA and the Chinese government, the scientists conducted field tests in a maize field using both state-of-the-art laser technology, and low-level methods to measure ET under different irrigation management systems.

Project Range

IAEA projects support the development of comprehensive national and transboundary water resource plans for domestic, livestock, fishery, irrigation and other water uses, and help states to develop regulations, procedures, standards, minimum requirements and guidelines for sustainable water management. Regional monitoring networks and databases on isotopes and the chemical constituents of surface water and ground water can also help to improve water resource management.

Additionally, radiation processing technology in combination with other techniques offers improved environmental safety through effective treatment of wastewater, and supports the reuse of treated wastewater for urban irrigation and industrial purposes.

IAEA Technical Cooperation projects support pesticide residue monitoring in soil, water and farm produce through training opportunities, the promotion of good agricultural practices, and the provision of appropriate laboratory equipment. Projects also help states to predict pesticide mobility in soils and leaching to the surface and into groundwater.

Water Fingerprints

The IAEA´s activity in water resource management is based on sophisticated, state-of-the-art science. IAEA scientists use technologies based on naturally-occurring, stable and radioactive isotopes to build "fingerprints" of water.

For example, the IAEA is currently helping Member States to strengthen their capacity for comprehensive national water-resources assessments through its IWAVE project. As a result, Member States are expected to be able to increase water availability and use, as well as manage many of the challenges related to environmental sustainability, human security and climate change.

Isotope techniques are particularly useful for mapping the origin and flow of groundwater. In conjunction with other international organisations, the IAEA is using isotope hydrology to answer some of the critical questions relating to the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS), which stretches beneath four north African countries. Scientists have many unanswered questions about the aquifer, like how long it will last and how human actions impact it. Answering them would help strengthen policymaking and cooperation between the nations that share this resource.

A better understanding of the interactions between the earth´s water cycle and climate is important for adapting to climate change and variability. Since 1961, the IAEA, in cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), has made available isotope data in global precipitation. The data is used to improve the study of atmospheric circulation and the impact of climate change through climate models. This project is called Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation (GNIP).

As the world faces rising challenges from pollution, climate change and water resources scarcity, the IAEA is playing a key role in the global effort to address these issues, helping the international community safeguard our environment and future.

See Story Resources for more information.

-- By Giovanni Verlini, IAEA Division of Public Information