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Conserve Every Drop: Isotope Hydrology Techniques Improve Kuwait's Water Management


Fresh groundwater samples are collected by the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR) from the North Kuwait aquifer for isotopic analyses. (Photo: KISR)

Kuwait — Arid countries like Kuwait are increasingly focussing on techniques using stable isotopes to assess their ground water resources and meet the challenge of managing the fresh water resources.

“There are no permanent rivers or lakes in Kuwait and groundwater is our only natural water resource. We have an average rainfall of just 115 mm per year and fresh water streams do not exist,” said Muhammad Al-Rashed, Executive Director of the Water Research Center (WRC) in the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR). Therefore, effective water management policies are vital to ensure quality and quantity of water availability to meet the demand of the country’s population of more than four million.

Kuwait’s groundwater reserves are mainly in the north of the country with limited recharge, as only a small percentage of rain water reaches these aquifers.

Isotope hydrology techniques are one of the key scientific methods that experts in Kuwait use to trace fresh water movement and to assess the age of available groundwater. It is based on the natural “tagging” water carries of various isotopes, which can be used to determine the source, age, movement and interactions of water above and below ground. The data obtained and visualized as hydrological maps enable experts in taking evidence-based decisions on sustainable resource management. Al-Rashed and his colleagues have conducted several isotope hydrology studies for the management of groundwater in Kuwait.

Kuwait's water use is among the highest in the world, with per capita consumption of over 400 litres per day. The withdrawal rate of groundwater is 255 million m³ per year. In contrast, the natural underground inflow to the aquifers from neighbouring countries is estimated at 67 million m3 per year. With limited fresh water resources, Kuwait relies heavily on desalinating seawater, which is an expensive process.

“We have to look at all available areas for potable water, and this is where isotope technology helps with investigations, as it looks at an optimum utilisation of all water resources required for sustainable development,” said Khaled Hadi, the Director of the Operations Division at WRC.

National efforts focus on investigating groundwater resources using isotope hydrology in combination with physicochemical methods, evaluating precipitation recharge, establishing an optimum water production strategy and evaluating the feasibility of artificial recharge of aquifers, said Nader Al-Awadi, KISR’s Executive Commissioner for International Cooperation.

Water related studies, lab support: IAEA capacity building efforts

The IAEA has been supporting Kuwait since 2000 through various technical cooperation projects, leading to the understanding of available ground water resources and corrective actions to enhance water management policies.

For example, an IAEA supported technical cooperation project on isotope investigations to evaluate groundwater hydrology in Kuwait, focused on the collection of isotopic data of groundwater that were later integrated with data collected during previous studies for the isotopic mapping of groundwaters covering the entire country. The application of isotope techniques helped in interpreting the origin, age and movement of groundwater, which are essential for the sustainable management of water resources.

Another project focused on the evaluation of potential contamination sources of nitrate and sulphate in the groundwater fields of Kuwait through isotopic characterization. It also studied the levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials in the groundwater. The study concluded that the major source of sulphate and nitrate in the groundwater is natural rather than a result of human activity, Hadi said. “These useful IAEA projects had helped in tailoring effective water management strategies.”

Some of the water samples are also sent to the IAEA Isotope Hydrology lab in Vienna, Austria for assessment.

The IAEA has also supported the establishment of Kuwait’s Isotope Hydrology Laboratory with the state-of-the-art instruments provided through IAEA technical cooperation projects. Other areas of capacity building assistance included training scientists and conducting research on a range of ground water issues.

In a recent meeting with IAEA staff, KISR Director General Samira A. S. Omar said: “The Government of Kuwait highly values the instrumental role the IAEA plays through its activities and support to Member States in promoting throughout the world capacity building, networking, knowledge sharing, and partnership development in various aspects of peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.”

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