Using Nuclear Science to Battle Desertification, Drought: IAEA

The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought underlines the urgent need to halt land degradation through global cooperation and innovative solutions - such as those offered by nuclear science.

For example, 'isotope hydrology' offers a unique and powerful tool to map water resources and therefore protect them - building drought resilience for future generations.

"We now know exactly which areas need special attention, and we know how to protect them to ensure our water supply for now and the coming decades," said Ricardo Sánchez-Murillo from the National University of Costa Rica, which has been partnering with the IAEA to understand Costa Rica's rainfall patterns.

How does isotope hydrology help us build drought resilience?

Isotope hydrology is a nuclear technique that reveals how water moves through the land, ocean and atmosphere, providing information about the water's origin, age, quality and movement.

Isotopes are atoms of the same element with the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. Water (H2O) being composed of two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen, each drop has a unique isotopic 'fingerprint' or 'signature', depending on where it comes from. Scientists can track the movement and pollution of water along its path through the water cycle.

For sixty years, the IAEA has been supporting researchers around the world gather and analyse water samples and created the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation, the worldwide monitoring network built by the IAEA to provide governments and researchers with the long-term, large-scale data they need to gain insights into climate processes at the local, regional and global scale.

Data and information help countries meet Sustainable Development Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and deliver on the Water Action Agenda.

Since 1962, water samples have been sent to the IAEA's laboratories in Vienna. The results provide scientists with detailed information on the origin and age, and this information is entered into the largest online isotopic hydrology database.

"This large amount of data allows researchers to better understand the water cycle globally and locally. For example: when, where, and how groundwater is recharged. This is key to decision makers to manage water resources, particularly in the light of climate change," explains IAEA Isotope Hydrologist Lucia Ortega.

The IAEA datasets and maps are freely available for analysts around the globe to study how changing global rainfall patterns affect local water resources.

These help countries understand how precipitation patterns change and how different rainfall events transfer to the groundwater system and help them also identify the exact source of water pollution when it occurs.

The Global Water Analysis Laboratory Network

The IAEA GloWAL Network (Graphic: A. Vargas/IAEA)

The IAEA is further promoting water cooperation through its Global Water Analysis Laboratory (GloWAL) Network.

Launched at the UN 2023 Water Conference, the GloWAL Network is a groundbreaking transformative tool in water analysis, empowering countries to independently generate chemical and isotopic water data.

The network fosters collaboration, best-practices, knowledge-sharing and capacity building among laboratories bridging technical gaps between lower-, middle- and high-income countries. GloWAL's objectives include enabling independent data collection in low- and middle-income countries, reducing technical disparities, attracting financial investment and promoting scientific innovation in water analysis.

The First Coordination Meeting of GloWAL Network will take place in Vienna next week (18-20 June 2024).

"The IAEA's work in promoting the use of nuclear technologies in water resource management is instrumental in advancing global efforts towards achieving water security and sustainability," said Jodie Miller, Head of the IAEA's Isotope Hydrology Section. "Through continued research, technical cooperation, and collaboration, we can harness the full potential of nuclear science to protect our precious water resources for a better and sustainable future," she added.

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