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Nuclear Science can Help Save Wetlands, IAEA COP27 Event Highlights


Wetlands are a window into the impacts of climate change on the hydrological cycle. At an #Atoms4Climate side event at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, panellists discussed the important ecological and hydrological functions that wetlands provide and why we must protect them.

Wetlands are ecologically diverse environmental systems and understanding where the water that supports them comes from is a key focus of the IAEA’s water resources programme. Using isotope hydrology tools and techniques, the different sources of water feeding a wetland can be identified and properly accounted for.

“Knowing whether a wetland is fed principally by groundwater or by precipitation is a key piece of information needed to effectively manage these systems,” said Jodie Miller, Head of the IAEA Isotope Hydrology Section, at the event, entitled Halting Wetland Loss through Innovative Science Approaches.

To generate the data needed to manage wetlands effectively, the IAEA is investing in technical capacity in countries to build up analytical laboratories. The goal is to enable countries to not only generate their own data, but also to develop water resource management projects and to build human resource capacity to both run the laboratory equipment and to interpret the data generated.

Building human capacity is a critical issue for Africa, emphasized Guy Midgely from the Centre for Climate Studies at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

“Only 4 out of the 1,000 top climate change scientists are from Africa,” he said. “This reflects the ongoing poor state of investment in science and technology in Africa and means the continent is on the backfoot in climate science.”

And this has serious consequences for wetlands preservation. Lake Chad, for instance, has lost more than 90% of its wetland since 1960 and much of this can be attributed to poor water management stemming from a lack of scientific understanding of the interconnected processes that affect wetlands.

Wetlands are also often a target for agricultural development due to the availability of water combined with nutrient-rich soils. The wetlands of the Nile Delta, for example, have been exploited for over a thousand years for agriculture.

“Many of the world’s poor rely on wetlands for their livelihoods and food production,” said Bisher Imam, a senior programme management officer at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “In addition, anthropogenically driven biodiversity changes, such as declines in migratory bird populations, also have direct socio-economic consequences for these people.”

Exploitation of wetlands requires careful management, emphasized Mark Schmidt, Director General of the International Water Management Institute. “Bringing science and technology, such as isotope hydrology, into management strategies is essential to bridge the gap between science and policy,” he said.

“Science and data and information can be the catalyst to bring people from different perspectives together to solve common issues.”

Data and information, capacity development, innovation: these are some of the key accelerators of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on Clean Water and Sanitation, panellists at the event agreed. The UN Water 2023 Conference will discuss how these accelerators, along with governance and finance, can help bring SDG6 back on track.

Accelerating SDG6 implementation will also require a better understanding of wetlands, which act as the interface between atmospheric and groundwater systems. Isotope hydrology helps us gather the knowledge to ensure their resilience now and for future generations.

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