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World Water Day 2017: Why Waste Water?

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Scientists around the world use naturally occurring isotopes present in water to characterize sources of contamination and improve water quality. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

The theme of World Water Day 2017 — Why waste water? — highlights the importance of conserving our limited freshwater resources. As more of the world’s population moves to urban areas, water conservation and reuse are ever more critical as part of efforts to provide adequate water and sanitation for all.

At the same time, it is also important that waste water reuse schemes do not lead to an overall decrease in the availability of water by contributing to the deterioration of water quality in surface and groundwater resources.

Good water quality management is essential to increasing water availability, which is the main aim of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 ‘Securing Sustainable Water for All, with associated benefits for improved health, the aim of SDG 3 ‘Good Health and Well-being’. Good water quality is a product of good science and advanced technologies. The IAEA works to strengthen national scientific and technical institutions responsible for water resource management within the SDG framework. Read more on the activities of the IAEA Water Programme in this area.

How the IAEA helps

Monitoring and management of groundwater pollution is a common and challenging problem for developing countries seeking to improve or better manage water quality. The IAEA builds capacities in Member States to characterize the sources of contamination by using naturally occurring isotopes present in water, mitigate their consequences and establish monitoring networks. Isotopes are important tools for managing water quality and understanding how to optimize wastewater treatment and wastewater recycling. 

There are currently 11 ongoing water quality projects, assisting 28 Member States, and 10 new technical cooperation projects have been proposed for 2018-2019. These projects support SDG target 6.6: protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountain forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes. These projects study and address various impacts of groundwater pollution.  

Deteriorating water quality in lakes and rivers

Water quality in lakes and rivers around the globe is deteriorating due to rising nutrient levels and other chemical pollutants, mainly from agriculture and household waste. This results in exponential blooms of some forms of aquatic life, typically algae, at the expense of other forms of life such as fish and molluscs. This is known as the eutrophic state. Nitrogen levels are expected to increase significantly over the next decades due to growing agricultural use of N-based fertilizers in the developing world. Integrating isotope techniques with conventional aquatic assessment approaches results in more effective management practices that preserve water quality and facilitate remediation efforts of lakes and rivers in the eutrophic state.

The IAEA is advancing technology through Coordinated Research Projects (CRP) such as "Isotopes to Study Nitrogen Pollution and Eutrophication of Rivers and Lakes" to improve capability and expertise in Member States in the use of isotopes to better assess nitrogen pollution on water resources variability, availability and sustainability. Participating countries include Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Cuba, Finland, Ghana, Greece, India, Italy, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, the United States and Viet Nam. 

This CRP also promotes new methodologies that will facilitate access to low-cost use of N-isotope data. The promotion of routine use of new analysis technologies on N isotopes will lead to a greater confidence in assessments of pollution of water resources and the adoption of sound remediation strategies for Member States seeking to achieve SDG 6.3, the waste management target: ‘By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally’.

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