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How Nuclear Techniques can Support Climate Adaptation and Post-COVID Recovery


More than 140 development experts, national counterparts and Permanent Mission representatives to the IAEA attended the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) side event last week. (Photo: C. Karle/IAEA)

Nuclear science and technology can be a key enabler for countries to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in several social, economic and environmental areas, improving people’s lives, tackling the consequences of climate change and supporting several aspects of the post-pandemic recovery.

At a virtual side event on the margins of  the United Nations High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development last week, experts from Malaysia, Nigeria, Peru and the IAEA discussed how nuclear science and technology have helped in the development of crops that are more resistant to drought and salinity. They also discussed how a climate-smart approach to soil and water management could increase food production and accelerate their economic recovery in the post COVID-19 period.  

Organized in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the panel discussion focused on the impact of nuclear applications on global efforts to support food security and improve access to water and included national experiences in sharing these achievements with various groups, including mountain communities, small-scale farmers and vulnerable populations.

Climate-smart agriculture is an approach that helps to guide actions needed to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure food security in a changing climate. With the support of IAEA and FAO experts, nuclear applications are deployed to relieve populations under stress from shrinking water sources, invasive pests or simply a changing climate.

“We coordinated with more than 2000 vulnerable farmers, living in a camp for internally displaced people near Abuja, and trained them in the application of drip irrigation, saving water without compromising yields,” said Sunday Abayomi Fasina, Vice Chancellor of the Federal University Oye-Ekiti in Nigeria. “These men and women, whose lives have been uprooted, are able to produce crops efficiently, conserve water resources and generate income for their families.” Isotopic techniques are used to determine the amount of water required by the plants and the optimal times for irrigation.

“Agriculture in the highland Andean regions of Peru, 3000 metres above sea level, is carried out by small-scale farmers. In this region, the soil can be very poor, and the climate challenging,” said Luz Gomez-Pando of the University of La Molina in Peru, who has worked closely with IAEA and FAO experts across a number of technical cooperation projects. “With IAEA and FAO support, experts at my university developed and released nine new varieties of barley, a staple crop in Andean mountain communities. The new varieties — tolerant of drought, low temperatures and resistant to disease — generated close to US $18 million for the highland farmers participating in the project.”

“Climate change is no longer only an environmental issue, but it is a major development and survival issue,” said Shyful Azizi B. Abdul Rahman, a researcher at the Malaysian Nuclear Agency’s Agrotechnology and Biosciences Division and a long-time collaborator with the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme. “Challenges such as soil degradation, water scarcity and the current pandemic are making rice production a daunting task, but we have been able to release two new mutant rice varieties to nearly 50,000 Malaysian farmers in 2020, which increased their yields and doubled their incomes.”

Nuclear and isotopic techniques are also applied to investigate and understand the world around us. With support delivered through the IAEA technical cooperation programme, scientists and researchers around the world can closely scrutinize how climate change is affecting the quality of soils, the recharge rate of groundwater or the prevalence of contaminants in our air. This information is used by decision makers to craft new policies, which prioritize sustainability and align closely with national development goals.

In facing the challenge of climate change, “isotope hydrology allows us to scrutinize the ‘fingerprints’ of water molecules, and their component elements, hydrogen and oxygen,” said Jodie Miller, IAEA Isotope Hydrology Section Head. “We can see where the water has come from, how long has it travelled, how old it is and much more. This information, in turn, allows us to better understand and manage our water resources.”

Held annually since 2013, the HLPF meets for eight days to review activities, achievements and experiences in global efforts to attain the SDGs. The Forum meets each year under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council and adopts political declarations.

Climate change is no longer an environmental issue, but it is a major development and survival issue.
Shyful Azizi B. Abdul Rahman, Researcher, Malaysian Nuclear Agency's Agrotechnology and Biosciences Division

"Climate change is no longer an environmental issue, but it is a major development and survival issue," said Shyful Azizi B. Abdul Rahman, Researcher at the Malaysian Nuclear Agency’s Agrotechnology and Biosciences Division. (Photo: C. Karle/IAEA)

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