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ENVIRONMENT: Nuclear Hope for Fresh Water Debated

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, May 23 2003 (IPS) - About 300 experts from around the world concluded an international symposium on water resources management here Friday, but could not discuss the acute crisis in Iraq.

Iraq could not be represented because it is under foreign occupation. Only governments of member states can send scientists to meetings of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

And since Iraq could not speak for itself, no one else could either. ”I do not know the state of the waters of the Tigris and Eupharates rivers,” Pradeep Aggarwal, head of the Isotope Hydrology Section at IAEA told IPS. ”Iraq was not on our agenda.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first water resources symposium hosted by the Vienna-based IAEA and held every four years. The meetings are called to review the role that nuclear science can play in sustainable human development.

Apart from its role as the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA works with governments and other international institutions to explore how nuclear science can help understand and address a range of problems including climate change, pollution of fresh water resources and contamination of the atmosphere and of oceans.

The IAEA has consistently promoted use of the isotope – the energy of a nuclear atom – to improve knowledge of water resources. The IAEA is employing techniques using isotopes in 150 projects in 60 countries.

The techniques have been found useful in tracing underground sources of water, in determining whether they are at risk of saltwater pollution, and even in separating waste from good water.

By determining how rapidly water moves isotopes, scientists can get critical information where to extract water. The isotopes of pollutants like trace metal or chemical compounds present in water also offer clues.

”In Bangladesh high levels of natural arsenic groundwater was found in many communal tube wells and efforts are being made to mitigate a complex set of problems by use of isotope hydrology,” Aggarwal said.

Dug in the seventies to provide an alternative to contaminated surface water, these wells have become a source for arsenic poisoning, causing deaths, widespread illness and disabilities.

Efforts are now made to test water from these wells and to identify other wells suspected of containing high levels of arsenic.

Only 2.5 percent of all water on earth is freshwater. Most of this is frozen in icecaps. Some is present as soil moisture and other reserves deep underground are inaccessible. This leaves just about 1 per cent accessible for use, scientists pointed out at the meeting.

With more than a third of global food production based on irrigation, the world is relying on unsustainable groundwater sources, according to official data. More than a billion people are estimated to lack adequate fresh water.

Water is becoming scarce particularly in North Africa and West Asia. Demand for water is expected to rise 40 percent over the next two decades. By 2025 two- thirds of the world’s population may live in countries with moderate or severe water shortages, going by some of the alarming statistics presented at the conference.

The IAEA believes isotope technology can play a vital role in addressing such shortage. One of the significant new projects is being conducted through the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. Isotope techniques are being used to trace groundwater resources in Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

More than 30 institutions in Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay are gathering data on water using both conventional and nuclear isotopic techniques, according to the IAEA. But little is being done in Iraq where the needs are most acute.

The IAEA plans to use these techniques also sto monitor rivers and their relationship to climate change.

 
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