Bolivians have found ways to protect and sustainably use water from the aquifer of Purapurani — with the help of nuclear technology.
Despite centuries of supplying water to the cities of El Alto and Viacha near the capital of La Paz, little had been known about Purapurani until recently. Scientists are now using isotopic techniques to gather key information about the age, quality and source of this water hidden underground, information that will allow them to better plan its use.
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“Thanks to isotopes, we are unveiling our aquifer’s secrets,” said Paola Mancilla Ortuño, hydrologist at the Ministry of Environment and Water. “Now we know that in the northern area of the aquifer, water at shallow levels is sadly contaminated. We also know that part of the water in the eastern area is possibly over 2000 years old. And we also know that groundwater in another part of the aquifer comes from rainwater in the Andes Mountain Range.”
Purapurani is a key resource for development in the area, and more than a million people depend on this 300 km² aquifer. “The two cities have developed economically thanks to Purapurani,” Mancilla Ortuño said. A growing population relies on it for everyday use, companies draw heavily from it to keep up with urban expansion, and farmers need it to sustain their crops and livestock.
The IAEA has helped Bolivia establish its first isotope hydrology laboratory, and since 2012 IAEA experts have been training a group of Bolivian scientists on the use of isotopic techniques to assess water resources and determine their origin, age, vulnerability to pollution, movement and interactions, both above and below ground (see The Science box). “Isotopic techniques give us useful information that we could not get from other methods. This gives us a wider vision,” Mancilla Ortuño said.
The improved capacities allow scientists to answer questions they could not properly address before: How old is the water and where does it come from? Is it still of good quality? How much of it is left? The answers to these questions help advance scientific research on Purapurani and shape water protection and management policies to reflect the aquifer’s potential and limits.
Isotopic techniques give us useful information that we could not get from other methods. This gives us a wider vision.