The United Nations nuclear watchdog may well sniff out plutonium-producing heavy water in its war against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but in a less heralded programme it is also working to sustain dwindling freshwater supplies for the world’s thirsty masses.
Such activities by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) highlight how nuclear science and technology can help boost incomes and support broader-based efforts for meeting basic human needs, especially in the world's poorer countries, according to the agency's latest Staff Report.
IAEA cited its use of isotopic tools to encourage sustainable water management in South America, China, Namibia, Indonesia, El Salvador and many other countries across the globe.
The Guarani Aquifer System, for example, shared by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and considered one of the most important fresh groundwater reservoirs, is just one of 73 IAEA projects looking at how dwindling freshwater supplies can be sustained.
In an international effort, the IAEA is focussing on finding ways for all four countries to share the aquifer in a way that will not cause it to run dry in the future. A nuclear tool, called isotope hydrology, is used to give scientists indispensable information on how much water is available, its quality, how quickly it is replenished and where it flows from. Piecing that information together reveals how the precious resource can best be managed.
The report noted Secretary General Kofi Annan’s speech to the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in New York last week outlining just how vital water management is. "Tensions over water could even generate conflict, within and across borders, although water also offers great opportunities for cooperation,” Mr. Annan said then. “So the stakes are high. Without an integrated approach, we could face a tangle of problems. But with one, we could generate a cascade of progress."
Land degradation is also firmly on the IAEA’s agenda. For example, since 1997 it has supported six countries – Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria and Tunisia – in the fight to turn arid wasteland into economically productive fields. Efforts have paid off with salt-tolerant plants now growing in the wastelands, providing sources of food or income for farmers.