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Protect the Land, Protect Our Future: IAEA Marks World Day to Combat Desertification

Nuclear science and technology can help fight the causes of desertification and the direct effect it has on more than 1.5 billion people worldwide. (Photo: N. Jawerth/IAEA)

As fertile soils become increasingly barren and transform into deserts, water becomes scarce and food crops suffer, driving farmers from their land. But nuclear science and technology offer ways to fight the causes of desertification and the direct effect it has on more than 1.5 billion people worldwide. For World Day to Combat Desertification, the IAEA takes a closer look at how countries are managing this global challenge.

Clever farming

As farmers live off the land, how they manage water and soil can directly influence soil health and degradation rates. Improper use of the land for agriculture can leave behind soil that is starved of nutrients, infertile and eroding: a desert. These effects can be amplified by the more extreme weather conditions, temperatures and drought caused by climate change. Desert lands can cause food shortages, loss of income and stifled development.

Climate-smart agricultural practices, supported in part by nuclear science, are helping farmers to live off their land while protecting it from desertification. These practices draw on data scientists collect using isotopic and nuclear techniques to study the behaviour of atoms in soil, water and fertilizer in local conditions. The way these atoms interact reveals precise information about soil erosion rates and conservation measures, fertilizer and water uptake by crops and water evaporation and transpiration rates. From this data, scientists can determine how these resources can be effectively and sustainably used, providing information that is then transformed into easy-to-implement guidance for farmers.

In Algeria, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Madagascar, Morocco, Tunisia and Uganda, scientists are now equipped with the technical knowledge and tools to use these isotopic techniques. With IAEA support, through its technical cooperation programme and in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), they are now tracking carbon and nitrogen atoms — two key elements that determine soil quality and health — in local fields to develop the data necessary to help farmers implement climate-smart agriculture practices. They are also using these techniques to identify erosion-prone areas and introduce conservation methods tailored to local conditions.

Finding a way out

When desertified lands stretch as far as the eye can see, the situation may appear hopeless, but in many cases, recovery is still possible. One way is through growing certain plants, like legumes, as the roots of these plants introduce organic matter and nutrients into the soil, which in turn can restore soil structure and eventually its quality and health. Finding ways to help plants overcome the harsh soil conditions of barren land can make a difference.

In Sudan and Kenya, a combination of nuclear science and a small-scale watering system known as drip irrigation has allowed farmers to grow crops on barren land. Scientists equipped and trained by the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture determined how to optimize water and fertilizer delivery through the drip irrigation system to the crops to allow them to flourish. With this knowledge, scientists helped to setup these systems and train farmers with easy-to-implement guidance that allows them to oversee and manage their own fields. These systems are also being complemented by specific plant varieties bred with the help of nuclear techniques to better tolerate harsh soil conditions.

“Higher crop yields provide farmers with food and a livelihood. As better yields lead to better lives, it encourages farmers to continue growing these essential crops that help to combat desertification and restore the land,” said Lee Heng, Head of the Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Section at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division.