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Revealing Hidden Links Between Groundwater Aquifers, Climate Change and Human Activities in Europe and Central Asia


The coordination meeting provided opportunities for project participants to visit aquifer springs, river catchment areas and other sites where groundwater may be sampled for analysis. (Photo: C. Henrich/IAEA)

Close to 30 hydrology experts from 27 countries  last month shared initial groundwater monitoring results at a regional coordination meeting in Krakow, Poland, as part of an IAEA technical cooperation project[1] to study the effects of climate change on groundwater aquifers in countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The project brings together 28 countries and focuses on building capacity in the use of isotope hydrology to answer fundamental questions about the future availability of groundwater resources.

According to UN Water, an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide depend entirely on groundwater for their livelihoods, which have come under threat due to the growing volatility of rainfall patterns and the growing frequency of extreme weather events.

The direct and indirect effects of climate change on groundwater resources are not yet fully understood. “To develop sustainable water-use policies and adaptation strategies, national authorities first need a foundation of accurate data to understand potential threats to water security,” said Christoph Henrich, IAEA Programme Management Officer.

The Kocinka catchment is located in southern Poland, discharging into the Liswarta and Vistula rivers, and sits atop none of the largest groundwater basins in Poland. (Photo: C. Henrich/IAEA)

“Groundwater sustainability in Cyprus is threatened by a number of factors, many of which are projected to worsen or intensify in coming years,” added Christos Christophi, Senior Geological Officer at the Cyprus Geological Survey Department, one of the meeting participants. “In addition to the naturally semi-arid environment of Cyprus, challenges such as overexploitation, seawater intrusion and groundwater quality deterioration linked to human activities are major sources of pressure.”

Using skills developed through a series of IAEA training events conducted in 2020 and 2021, hydrology professionals participating in the project are now applying isotopic techniques to identify vulnerabilities affecting important local and transboundary groundwater resources, to calculate recharge rates and to model regional water cycles.

Eight case studies, each focusing on a particular geographic area or specific hydrology aspect, are being conducted through the ongoing project, including an assessment of the threat of nitrate contamination in European river basins, an exploration of the effects of climate change on irrigation waters across the European plain, and an analysis of factors affecting the sustainability of the Oko transboundary aquifer, which is shared by Bosnia & Herzegovina.   

Following their sampling activities, participants will soon analyse the collected groundwater and report their outcomes to IAEA experts. (Photo: C. Henrich/IAEA)

“Water resources in Poland, measured per capita, are naturally quite low. If we are to mitigate the nitrate pollution affecting our limited groundwater sources—which often finds its source in agricultural pesticides—we must first understand its origins and pathways,” explained Przemyslaw Wachniew of the Krakow University of Science and Technology, which hosted the meeting.  “Environmental tracers are an indispensable tool in our study and allow us to quantify groundwater inflows to streams and to identify the sources of these nitrate contaminants.”

Held from 16 to 20 May, the meeting’s participants visited the Kocinka River catchment area, a groundwater monitoring site in Kocin, the Olczyskie karstic spring in the Tatra Mountains and thermal waters in Bukowina Tatrzanska.

Finally,  under the supervision of IAEA and international experts, participants sampled groundwater from a treatment plant in Wierzchowisko, which will be analysed at national laboratories in the participating countries.

“The experts have now returned home and will soon analyse the groundwater jointly sampled in Wierzchowisko,” explained IAEA Isotope Hydrologist Oliver Kracht. “By transmitting their outcomes to the IAEA, we can compare all the resulting data to ensure their laboratory equipment is appropriately calibrated, their testing methods follow the correct procedure, and their measurements are accurate.” 

[1] RER7013, ‘Evaluating Groundwater Resources and Groundwater-Surface-Water Interactions in the Context of Adapting to Climate Change’

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