Water Experts Call for Intensified Cooperation to Tackle Water Crisis

Water is essential for life. Water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security and livelihoods.

The IAEA's Scientific Forum, Water Matters, held from 20 to 21 September 2011 in Vienna, gathered experts from around the world to discuss solutions to the water crisis, and to highlight the importance of nuclear techniques in managing water sustainably.

The experts explained that the water crisis already directly affects at least one billion people who lack any access to safe drinking water. The United Nations estimates that by 2030 nearly half of the world population will live under water stress conditions.

Water Availability

As global populations grow, the demand for food and energy will place an ever greater strain on finite water reserves. When water is scarce, its efficient use is vital for development, food security and survival. Groundwater comprises the vast majority of all drinking water on the planet. Due to growing water scarcity, more and more countries have to rely on groundwater to address their water demand. Yet, these countries often do not have enough information about their groundwater reserves' renewability. Isotope hydrology techniques fill this knowledge gap. Isotope hydrology is not only one of the most affordable means to make these precise determinations, it also delivers actionable data about groundwater and surface water resources more quickly and reliably than other methods. These techniques are being used successfully to characterize gigantic aquifers, such as the Nubian aquifer, the world's largest fresh water reservoir, as well as much smaller aquifers that may offer the only source of drinking water for communities.

Agricultural Water

Agriculture uses 70% of the fresh water consumed annually. Rain-fed agriculture is often inefficient and frequently unreliable, yet it is the only method available for many farmers in the most water-scarce regions of the world. The experts highlighted drip irrigation as an effective alternative method that reduces agricultural water consumption and erosion dramatically, while ensuring reliable yields. When used in conjunction with nuclear techniques that inform farmers where and how to water and fertilize, these optimized water management and irrigation methods help reduce the risk of food crises caused by drought.

However, Africa remains particularly vulnerable since only 6% of the land is irrigated. By employing nuclear techniques, countries can develop technology packages that increase water use efficiency, determine basic soil properties and monitor soil water storage over large areas. The international community, stakeholders and beneficiaries at all levels can achieve progress through partnerships to support these methods' widespread adoption. The experts and participants noted that the 47-year-old FAO/IAEA partnership has been highly successful in improving water management in agriculture.

Oceans and Coastlines

Marine and coastal environments are an essential source of nutrition for millions of people, while offering employment and generating revenue through transport, fishing and tourism. These vulnerable environments are subject to increasing pollution. Every day, two million tons of human waste is dumped into the oceans, threatening the health and the wellbeing of the inhabitants and the marine life in coastal areas. Other pollutants arising from industry and agricultural run-off also endanger these regions. During the first comprehensive investigation of the Caribbean Sea undertaken with the support of the IAEA, scientists used nuclear techniques to determine that these waters contained high levels of lead, arsenic, organic pollutants and pesticides in the water. This analysis provided policy-makers with the first precise picture of this vast area, thus informing development and conservation planning in the future.

Ocean Acidification

Recent research now provides evidence that rising levels of CO2 are causing ocean waters to become more acidic. The world's oceans absorb over 26% of the total CO2 emissions. This CO2 is combine with ocean waters and forms carbonic acid. The oceans' rising acidity disrupts the ability of many organisms to create robust skeletons, shells and other calcium-based structures. As a result, the organisms that provide the foundation of the marine food chain are threatened, as well as the corals that serve as coastal protection and act as a habitat for countless marine species. The IAEA's Marine Laboratory, the only marine laboratory in the UN System, is working with researchers around the world to study this process.

Algal Blooms

Whether caused by natural processes or agricultural run-off, toxic algal blooms occur around the world. When toxin-tainted seafood is consumed, paralysis, amnesia and even death can result. The IAEA and its international partners have used nuclear techniques to develop and refine an assay technique that can much more quickly and precisely warn of an outbreak, thus saving lives and protecting fisheries.

Experts called for a much greater investment in training water professionals. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, experts estimate that currently 50 to 300% more well-trained water specialists are urgently needed, depending on the region and the extent of its water scarcity challenges.

Recommendations

The panellists and participants identified three factors for improving responses to the crisis:

  • Credible and timely scientific data to support decision-making. Nuclear techniques are very helpful, sometimes cheaper and more accurate than traditional methods to provide information needed for management.
  • More effective communication among end users, scientists and supporting agencies to maximize impact. It is not simply enough to generate data. It is imperative to be able to communicate results to the public; and that scientists and end�users participate jointly in the design and implementation of water management policies and programmes. Mutual outreach to communicate results (for scientists) and needs (of end users) should be a high priority.
  • A stronger strategic framework for cooperation and synergies through collaborative partnerships should be established. It is important that UN agencies and programmes that are working on water issues, work closely together. Furthermore, partnerships between other organizations, and end users, and in particular with Member State institutions and other stakeholders should be enhanced.

(This summary is excerpted from the Rapporteurs' reports provided by Brent Newman, Nuclear Science and Applications; Phillip Chalk, Nuclear Science and Applications; Jane Gerardo-Abaya, Technical Cooperation, as well as the Report to the 55th General Conference on the IAEA Scientific Forum 2011, "Water Matters", by Dr. Ana Carolina Ruiz Fernández, which can be accessed here).

Last update: 14 November 2014