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Amid Obstacles, Central African Republic Opts for Progress with Nuclear Technology

Isotope hydrologists prepare to collect water samples from a well in Bangui, Central African Republic, March 2017. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

Bangui, Central African Republic — After years of insecurity and internal strife, authorities and scientists from the Central African Republic are again turning to nuclear and nuclear-related techniques for development. From increasing soil fertility to developing improved plant varieties and understanding their water resources, they are now picking up speed with the help of the IAEA and its partners.

“We’ve already suffered enough from the conflict,” said Kosh Komba, researcher at the University of Bangui, during a public health presentation he attended last month under an IAEA project. “We can’t afford to suffer more due to things we can avoid.”

When the conflict erupted in 2013, there was no common strategy to work on, said Pilar Murillo, manager of the IAEA’s technical cooperation projects in the Central African Republic. “Now, the situation is different. Together with the relevant national authorities, we have drafted a new strategy for 2017-2021.”

This article summarizes the status of the work in the country and the hopes of the scientists involved.

See scientists at work in the field in this photo essay.

Water

In 2010, a team of researchers at the University of Bangui started working with the IAEA to improve their understanding of groundwater using isotopic techniques. Before they were forced to freeze their studies in 2013 due to conflict, the scientists had managed to identify groundwater bodies vulnerable to pollution in the Bangui area.

Today, they are back in the field.

“Scientists in neighbouring countries can almost never go to the field to take samples because of armed rebel groups,” said Eric Foto, project focal point in central Africa. “But now we have managed to continue what we started. What we do is travel with colleagues from non-governmental organizations and take advantage of their protection. Work goes on.”

Eric Foto leads a team of isotope hydrologists in Bangui who travel to the field to collect water samples. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

In cooperation with 12 other countries in the Sahel and with the support of the IAEA, scientists at the University of Bangui are back on track, taking samples from groundwater in the Lake Chad Basin in northern Central African Republic.

Using isotopic techniques and collaborating with neighbouring countries, the scientists have so far delineated the source of water of the main aquifer at the Lake Chad Basin for the very first time: rivers that come from northern Central African Republic. Knowing where the groundwater comes from will now help policymakers protect it against pollution.

Click here to learn more about this project in the Sahel.

Agriculture

Cassava — or manioc, as it is known in the region — is the most consumed food in central Africa. It contains plenty of starch, calcium, phosphorous, protein and vitamin C. Crucially, it can grow in harsh environments when adequate nutrients are added to the soil.

But even such a resilient plant needs protection.

“In every field, you will see cassava, but not all varieties are resistant to climate change and disease,” said Sila Semballa, coordinator of the Laboratory of Biological and Agronomic Sciences for Development (LASBAD) and dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui.

Cassava — or manioc, as it is known in the region. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

The IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is using irradiation techniques to improve cassava and enable it to resist adverse climate conditions and diseases such as the mosaic virus and the brown streak virus disease in the Central African Republic.

Scientists use irradiation to induce genetic variation in plants. This increases the genetic diversity of crops and can result in new varieties with improved characteristics. In 2016, scientists at the FAO/IAEA Laboratories in Austria irradiated cassava cuttings, which are now planted in the Central African Republic for testing. Scientists at LASBAD also send selected varieties to farmers for further testing.

“The plants need to be in a natural environment exposed to all types of aggression” said Geralde Gado Yamba Kassa, a researcher who spent six months as a visiting fellow at the FAO/IAEA Laboratories in 2015-2016. “This way, we can check which ones resist and which ones do not. There is a tremendous opportunity to increase production in this country.”

Geralde Gado Yamba Kassa checks Cassava planted in Bangui. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

A new FAO/IAEA project to increase soil fertility is expected to be launched next year. International scientists will train locals on the use of nuclear-derived techniques to measure nitrogen quantities in soil with the aim of optimizing the use of nitrogen fertilizer.

“We are in an agricultural country. If we increase crop productivity, we increase the means of living for millions of people,” said Kosh Komba, who will be in charge of the project at the University of Bangui, while he walked through the empty laboratory that he has reserved for the project.

Radiation protection

In 2013, the country’s National Agency for Radiation Protection — created with IAEA support to ensure safety in handling radioactive sources in the mining industry — suffered a blow.

“Rebels burnt our building, with all our equipment,” said Director General Gilbert Guido, standing on the ruins of what used to be his office. “Not even a needle is left.”

Now, Guido manages a team of 13 specialists trained by the IAEA who continue to benefit from IAEA fellowships and scientific visits. From his new temporary desk at the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Hydrology, Guido looks forward to restarting the work done before the eruption of the conflict.

“We do not have the equipment, but we have the people. With trained people, we hope to start again from the ashes.”