Nuclear science helps increase water security

Only 2.5 per cent of the Earth's water is fresh, and only one per cent is available for drinking, bathing or irrigating agricultural fields. Nuclear science and technology help understand the availability, quality and sustainability of water resources. (Photo: L. Toro/IAEA)

Changes in the world’s weather patterns are having severe impacts on lives and livelihoods across the globe. In the summer of 2022, some of the world’s mightiest rivers, such as the ColoradoLoirePoRhine and Yangtze, saw significant drops in water levels, in some areas shrinking to thin trickles as a result of severe climate-driven droughts. ‘Water Security in a Changing World’ was held alongside the IAEA’s annual General Conference. Experts gathered to discuss water security and how nuclear science can be used to make informed decisions on preserving water. The IAEA and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) organised the event jointly.

“We are experiencing worldwide changes in the distribution of water caused by climate change,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, at the event’s opening. “Our success in managing these shifts will largely rely on the tools at our disposal. They include various nuclear techniques to track and understand the movement of water,” she added.

Water scarcity

About 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. However, only 2.5 per cent of that is fresh. Much of it is frozen in glaciers or buried underground. Only one per cent is available for drinking, bathing or irrigating agricultural fields. The participants focused on how nuclear and isotopic techniques can help understand the impact of climate change and human activities on water availability and sustainability. These include using a range of isotope tracers to know how water moves through the different stages of the water cycle. They also discussed which components of this cycle are most at risk from climate change.

One such critical component is groundwater. Groundwater is an essential source of freshwater. It mitigates the impact of evaporative losses of surface water as the temperature of the Earth’s surface increases. Participants discussed studying the availability of groundwater, its quality and sustainability. They also looked at the connection to important ecosystems such as rivers and coastal environments.

How nuclear science can help manage water security

“To address the escalating problem of deteriorating water quality worldwide, we need to accommodate for varying levels of treatment centralisation. We also need to match water quality to the intended use. We must include governance aspects of technology implementation explicitly,” said Janet Hering, the Director of Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. Hering signed a Practical Arrangement with the IAEA at the General Conference. The Practical Arrangement aims to improve spatial mapping of water quality and improved understanding of the timescales of pollution transport.

Water scarcity now affects every continent. According to a recent report, 2 billion people, or 26 per cent of the world’s population, lack safe drinking water and 3.6 billion people, or 46 per cent, lack adequate sanitation. At the current consumption rate, water scarcity is expected to worsen as global temperatures continue to rise and the population continues to grow. UNICEF reports that as early as 2025, half of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed areas.

“Water security is a core issue facing all countries,” said Jodie Miller, Head of the Isotope Hydrology Section in IAEA’s Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. “The question of how to save water and maintain water quality is a top priority for the international community. Nuclear science contributes to unlocking the answers to it.”

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