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Experts Meet on Using Nuclear Science to Monitor Water Quality - 2003-05-21

A conference organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency is to discuss ways of using nuclear science in water management, including improved methods of marine pollution detection and measuring the availability, and even the age, of this precious resource.

Almost 300 participants from 70 countries are meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna to discuss the planet's water crisis. Water is a scarce commodity in many parts of the globe, and competition could lead to international conflicts or tension.

In addition, floods wreak havoc each year in Europe, while elsewhere many millions of people have no access to water. The IAEA, well-known these days for its hunt for banned nuclear weapons, is also responsible for the peaceful application of nuclear technology in such areas as water management.

For decades it has been using what is known as isotope hydrology to achieve more efficient use of water.

Pradeep Aggarwal, in the agency's department of nuclear sciences, said this can give scientists important clues. "As the result of the water cycle, you develop fingerprints of water starting from the ocean and going into the air, to the clouds and coming down in different places, and basically isotope hydrology is a science to use those tracers and these fingerprints to trace the origin, or source, and movement of how the water moves in the system," he said.

The IAEA has around 80 projects on water resources in 50 different countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, the Nile River Basin, and the Dead Sea.

"In a lot of places the groundwater is very old, so you need to know how much is old, how much is new," explained Mr. Aggarwal. "When you pump the water you do not know where it is coming from. Some of it is replaceable, some of it is not; so in Africa, Asia, Latin America we have provided assistance and worked over the last 30 years, 40 years"

Isotope technology is in use to identify marine pollution, and IAEA scientists are analyzing marine radioactivity resulting from nuclear weapons testing in areas such as French Polynesia.