The recent achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target, to reduce the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by half, has struck a note of hope in the development world. The World Health Organization warns, however, that ‘only 61% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to improved water supply sources compared with 90% or more in Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern Africa, and large parts of Asia. Over 40% of all people globally who lack access to drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.’
Improving access to safe drinking water in the water-scarce Sahel thus remains a pressing topic that demands continued global attention. Helping Member States in the Sahel to manage their scarce water resources more effectively is key to alleviating the burden of water shortages in the region. Nuclear technology can be used to collect important water data that helps countries to manage their scarce water resources effectively and wisely. Isotopic and other nuclear techniques can be used to determine the extent and sustainability of water resources, to evaluate water quality, and to identify pollution pathways.
Most drinking water comes from groundwater. Nuclear science can be used to find and map underground water sources – aquifers – in the Sahel. The technique, isotope hydrology, identifies the unique characteristics of water in a source, allowing targeted evaluations of water quality, the determination of whether the water is safe for human consumption, and the best place for siting wells.
Nuclear techniques can also be used to improve the conservation of water supplies, for example, through drip irrigation, which has been widely adopted in sub-Saharan Africa. In drip irrigation, precise amounts of water are applied directly to the root of a plant, avoiding evaporation or leakage. Nuclear techniques are used to determine precisely how much water a plant needs to grow, and the appropriate dripping intervals to boost crop yields while significantly reducing the usage of water.
The IAEA has successfully taken part in global efforts to increase water availability in dry areas like the Sahel through technical cooperation projects on water resource management, and is continuing to investigate ways to work with partners to improve the water situation in the region. For example, a trans-boundary programme in the region to map aquifers and make efficient use of underground water supplies could utilize nuclear techniques in combination with other methods that could be delivered through the cooperation programmes of international partners. The aim would be to make the most of each other’s expertise, and in so doing to optimize all the support available to the region.
Improved water management practices and access to sustainable water supplies could contribute significantly to the socioeconomic development of the Sahel region by supporting food security and enhanced income for families through enhanced agricultural productivity, and reducing the risk to adults and children of water-borne diseases.
The Sahel region, extending from the west to the east coast of Africa and separating the vast Sahara desert from the sub-Saharan tropics, lies within a unique climatic zone, characterized by unstable weather conditions. For the past few decades the region has suffered from extreme drought, inflicting a severe water burden on the area and causing widespread hunger.
Due to increased drought and desertification, much of the area’s surface water has evaporated. The remaining scarce water resources must be shared between agriculture and human consumption. Poor quality, dirty drinking water collected from ponds causes serious water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera that can be lethal in remote areas without access to modern medicine.