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Isotope Techniques Support an Integrated Approach to Water Management in the Sahel


The Sahel region, extending from the west to the east coast of northern Africa, is one of the world's driest areas. With a drastic decrease in rainfall over the past few decades and, thus, ever shrinking surface water reserves, the people in the Sahel continue to suffer from some of the worst periods of drought and rely mainly on underground water resources. 

To address the urgent water shortage and to help Sahel countries make use of their underground water supplies in a sustainable manner, the IAEA assists Sahel Member States to improve the understanding of their underground water systems through the use of isotope techniques, while contributing to numerous international and regional multidisciplinary initiatives to develop effective water management programmes in the Sahel region. 

Isotopes complement the conventional water assessment methods by providing useful information about the quality and availability of underground water, stored in major aquifer systems hidden under the dried surface of the Sahel. Isotope techniques are also used to investigate climate change and identify its impacts on groundwater recharge and quality. 

The isotope data can later be used to formulate optimal water management strategies and climate change adaptation policies to help countries sustainably meet the current and future water demands in the region. 

Transboundary management issues

"Natural resources, such as water do not know, or do not have [state] borders", explains Adnane S. Moulla, research scientist from Algeria.

Many aquifers stretch beneath several African countries. Groundwater use, however, may vary from one country to another, raising concerns of fair distribution of the shared groundwater resources and triggering transboundary water management problems.

Due to the lack of understanding of how exactly aquifers function and the absence of guidelines or standards for groundwater use in most of the Sahel countries, overuse, pollution and degradation of groundwater resources are some of the major threats facing the Sahel aquifers.

As the demand for limited water resources grows, the transboundary management issues related to shared aquifers become more pressing. The Sahel countries have now recognized the need for the establishment of technical, legal and institutional frameworks for the management of their shared water resources in a cooperative and integrated manner.

The IAEA helps Sahel countries use isotopes to monitor and assess certain characteristics of their shared aquifers to better understand how transboundary groundwater systems work, how much water can be extracted by each country without tapping water reserves of another, and what impact human activities have on their aquifers. Such information is fundamental for the development of effective and integrated regional water management programmes to ensure the sustainability of shared aquifers and their water quality.

Supporting the regional initiative

Working with other international organizations, such as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Sahara and Sahel Observatory (OSS), the IAEA is currently implementing a large scale, four year project on water resource management in the Sahel region. The project covers five major aquifer systems: the Iullemeden Aquifer System, the Liptako-Gourma-Upper Volta System, the Senegalo-Mauritanian Basin, the Chad Basin, and the Taoudeni Basin. These major transboundary aquifers are shared by thirteen African Member States. 

The new technical cooperation project aims to support the regional initiative to enable a rational and sustainable management of shared groundwater resources in the region that will contribute to socioeconomic development. 

Through the project, the IAEA will help the Sahel region to build human resource and infrastructure capacity to support the sustainable use of isotope hydrology in groundwater resource management projects. 

Read more about the TC water project in the Sahel region:
Integrated and Sustainable Management of Shared Aquifer Systems and Basins of the Sahel Region


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