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IAEA Symposium Explores the Frontiers and Foundations of Isotope Hydrology

Isotope Hydrology

The 14th International Symposium on Isotope Hydrology explored water and climate issues, current developments in isotope hydrology and how isotopic techniques can be widely applied. (Photo: IAEA)

Collaboration, knowledge sharing and embracing the latest technology and tools are important elements for developing effective and sustainable water resource management solutions, concluded experts during the 14th International Symposium on Isotope Hydrology held this week at the IAEA headquarters. The symposium brought together more than 400 professionals who explored water and climate issues, current developments in isotope hydrology and how isotopic techniques can be widely applied.

“There is virtually no area of human activity that does not depend on water. It is vital for human health, for agriculture, for industrial production, and for technological development,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano during his opening remarks. “The need for scientifically rigorous evidence to support policy planning and the allocation of water resources has never been greater. Nuclear science — and the techniques of isotope hydrology, in particular — have a key role to play in developing the scientific evidence that Member States need in order to manage their water resources and to respond to the effects of climate change.”

Isotope hydrology is an area of hydrology, the scientific study of water, that measures isotopes — chemical elements with atoms that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons — to estimate the geographical origin of water and water movement on, above and below the surface of the Earth. This technique is used for understanding water availability under the present and future climates, the source and monitoring of contaminants in water, and for effectively assessing and managing water resources. 

“Isotope techniques contribute a lot and complement existing techniques that we have been using,” said Callist Tindimugaya from the Ministry of Water and Environment in Uganda and the chair of the steering committee for an IAEA-supported Nile groundwater project. Isotope techniques are very useful in many areas, such as studying how groundwater and surface water interact, he said. “Isotope hydrology is probably one of the rare techniques that can help with identifying this interaction.” Hear more about Uganda’s project on Nile groundwater here.

The symposium, entitled Revisiting Foundations and Exploring Frontiers, was held from 11 to 15 May and featured presentations, plenary and poster sessions, and roundtable discussions on a range of topics related to, among others, isotopic tools and local, regional and global water assessments and studies; groundwater dating and palaeohydrology; water balance and hydrological processes; analytical methods and modelling approaches; new develops and tools in isotope science; global water and climate challenges, including water scarcity, water quality, food security and energy resources. 

Isotope hydrology is an area of hydrology, the scientific study of water, that measures isotopes to estimate the geographical origin of water and water movement on, above and below the surface of the Earth. (Photo: IAEA)

Scientific collaboration

Several delegates from Member States also presented on collaborative projects with the IAEA. The presentations focused on a range of international technical and research projects, from a project assessing and mapping the transboundary water resources in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, to a case study on isotope variations and its implications on water budget in India. 

“Today, we see the legacy of these ideas [using nuclear science and technology to better understand and manage water] in the work of the IAEA — using isotope hydrology to help Member States and entire regions to better understand the nature of their water resources and promote cooperation across borders,” said Thomas Hushek, Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States Mission in Vienna. 

In Cuba, for example, the IAEA has been supporting the country for more than 15 years through a series of national and regional technical projects that have helped the country to develop its capacity to use isotopic techniques in understanding its natural water resources. “The IAEA has played an incredible role as a catalyzer in terms of international cooperation and transfer of knowledge,” said Carlos Alonso Hernandez from Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos (CEAC), Cuba. These initiatives have provided valuable scientific knowledge that contributed to the adoption of the Cuba's new sustainable water management policy that also addresses the economic, ecological, and social challenges related to water, including population growth, climate change and pollution.

For over 50 years, the IAEA, its Member States and other partner organizations have come together in this quadrennial symposium to discuss the experiences and outcomes of their technical and coordinated research projects, as well as review the state-of-the-science, practical applications, and research trends and needs in isotope hydrology. These joint activities have not only brought recognition to isotope hydrology as a discipline in its own right within the science of hydrology, but continue to help Member States to build their capacities to understand and effectively manage their water resources in a sustainable way.

As technology progresses and new tools are developed in isotope hydrology, further scientific data can be collected and analytical development will continue to advance. Smaller, cheaper, simpler and more versatile analytical equipment are already making sample sizes smaller, which allows for faster analysis and eases information distribution. 

“New developments in the interpretation of isotope data allow us to understand meteorological processes and will lead to a closer interaction with the climate change research community,” said Pradeep Aggarwal, Head of the Hydrology Section of the IAEA and chief organizer of the Symposium. “This was the dream of the early scientists in the 1960s and would likely come to fruition in the near future.”


John Brittain, IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, also contributed to this article. 

Last update: 26 Jul 2017


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