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In Search of Groundwater: PhD Students from the Sahel Meet to Characterise and Understand Water


Students during the IAEA’s first PhD conference on 11 March in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: J. O’Brien)

Making sure there is enough fresh water to support the 135 million people in one of the driest regions on earth was the subject of the first ever IAEA conference for PhD students held this month. Sixteen attendees from Africa’s Sahel region presented their work and results on how to improve the management of water resources using isotope hydrology techniques.

During the one-day meeting, the young researchers discussed solutions that can be used in the Sahel, where water demand is projected to increase fourfold in households, and ninefold in industry by 2050. Groundwater resources will continue to be used to meet this growing demand.

The PhD conference was part of a technical cooperation project to support thirteen African countries to better understand and manage shared water resources across the Sahel. With support from this project, students from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo are working towards their PhD or post-doctoral programmes and will become experts trained to identify the origin, flow patterns, quality, and renewal rate of groundwater using isotopic techniques (see The Science).  

“Using isotopes to date and characterise the qualitative potential of water has taught me that groundwater is a strategic resource, and its protection is indispensable,” said Fricelle Song from Cameroon, who is studying at the university in her home country and also at a university in France. “This PhD programme is helping me acquire many skills including analytical laboratory techniques essential for the proper functioning of the laboratory at my university.”

During their studies at the partner universities abroad – in Canada, Ghana, France, Italy, Morocco and Tunisia – the students from the Sahel are gaining additional expertise as well as skills in the collecting samples in the field and analysing them in isotope laboratories.

“Investment in people is the most important investment we can make. This unique conference served as a platform to connect these students, connect their research, and connect their countries,” said Neil Jarvis, the IAEA Section Head responsible for the project.

One of the PhD students, Jeanot Fongoh Enoh from Cameroon during a field exercise learning how to differentiate water types and identify water pollution sources. (Photo: Archive of J. F. Enoh)

The current technical cooperation project addresses characterisation, management and monitoring of groundwater through data collection and interpretation, and training. It builds on an earlier project, in which scientists from Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo were trained in water sampling for isotope analysis in order to carry out a detailed survey of groundwater supplies.

Building on the first phase of the project which ended in 2017, they have analysed a further 2000 water samples from different aquifers from five major transboundary aquifer systems: the Iullemeden Aquifer System, the Liptako-Gourma-Upper Volta System, the Senegalo-Mauritanian Basin, the Lake Chad Basin and the Taoudeni Basin. The results from this water analysis provided critical information for the management of water systems in these basins. “You cannot manage, what you don’t measure. The new data confirmed the presence of large amounts of good quality groundwater,” said Jodie Miller, Head of the Isotope Hydrology Section at the IAEA and the chair of the PhD conference. “Now it is up to the national and regional experts including these PhD students to work together to understand and interpret these data.”

The project also contributes to the goals of Africa’s Agenda 2063 and to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically to SDG6, which is calling to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. According to the UN Global Acceleration Framework, one of the accelerators on how to solve water crisis is to improve data and information accessibility for decision makers.

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