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Libyan Newswire

Nuclear Techniques Help Address Land Degradation

Soil degradation, and more broadly the importance of soil for human welfare, will be the focus of World Soil Day, which is celebrated for the first time on 5th December 2014. (Photo: R. Quevenco/IAEA)

Nuclear techniques can help protect soil from degradation, which affects 1.9 billion hectares of land, a whopping 65 per cent of global soil resources. Various projects by the IAEA and the Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have resulted in significant decrease in soil degradation in several countries around the world.

Soil erosion is the main contributor to land degradation, leading to an annual loss of 75 billion tonnes of fertile soil. The economic cost associated with soil erosion is about US $400 billion per year. The IAEA, through its Technical Cooperation programme, and in partnership with FAO through their Joint Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, helps scientists and farmers in over 60 countries in measuring and controlling soil erosion through the use of various nuclear techniques. These include fallout radionuclides (FRNs), which help to assess soil erosion rates, and compound-specific stable isotope (CSSI) analysis, which assist in tracing hot spots of land degradation

Nuclear Techniques Contribute to Reduced Soil Erosion in Asia

In Asia, scientists use these techniques to gather information on soil erosion rates in agricultural landscapes and to identify areas of land degradation. Such information helps guide farmers and land users to minimize soil erosion, make best use of soil resources and improve agricultural land management.

Through a regional project on Improving Soil Fertility, Land Productivity and Land Degradation Mitigation the Joint FAO/IAEA Division works in 14 countries including Australia, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam. Key results include the following:

  • In China a study using nuclear techniques was undertaken in the Loess Plateau and in the north-eastern part of the country, to measure soil erosion rates and identify its exact source within the catchment area. As a result of the conservation measures that were subsequently implemented, soil erosion rates were reduced between 16 to 80 per cent;
  • In Indonesia, most soils are susceptible to erosion, because of low soil quality, intensive land use and high rainfall intensity. In the Pasir Buncir catchment area, hot spots of land degradation were identified through nuclear techniques. Implementing conservation measures, soil erosion rate was reduced by over 50 per cent at catchment level;
  • In the Timah Tasoh river catchment area, in northern Malaysia, sedimentation through soil erosion contributed to the deterioration of its water quality affecting the main water reservoir. The nuclear techniques enabled precise measurement of the sedimentation rate and identified agricultural land as the major source (55 per cent) of sediments to the reservoir. Appropriate soil conservation practices were then applied to reduce soil erosion and improve its life span;
  • In Pakistan, the Potwar Plateau is one of the severely eroded areas because of a combination of steep topography, deforestation, inappropriate agricultural practices and land-use change, and extreme rains during monsoon season. Adopting appropriate conservation practices reduced soil erosion rates by 53 per cent; and
  • In Viet Nam, around three quarters of the country’s territory is sloping land, which is prone to high soil erosion losses. A study comprised of 27 sites in the region of Lamdong province measured soil erosion rates using nuclear techniques. Adopting appropriate conservation practices such as inter-cropping, growing green-manure plants, creating basins near coffee trees, contour cropping and terracing, led to 45 per cent reduction in soil erosion.

The IAEA also transfers nuclear techniques to scientists in various African countries, including Algeria, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe as part of a regional project called Supporting Innovative Conservation Agriculture Practices to Combat Land Degradation and Enhance Soil Productivity for Improved Food Security. Similarly, in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) a regional project on Strengthening Soil and Water Conservation Strategies at the Landscape Level by Using Innovative Radio and Stable Isotope and Related Techniques, promotes the use of these nuclear techniques to determine rates of soil erosion and sources of land degradation to improve soil management.

Partnerships and collaboration with other United Nations organizations are essential in this area. Through practical arrangements, the IAEA is cooperating with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in order to promote good soil management practices, especially in areas vulnerable to or affected by soil erosion.  

Down To Earth Problems

Soil degradation, and more broadly the importance of soil for human welfare, will be the focus of World Soil Day, which is celebrated for the first time on 5 December 2014, following a 68th UN General Assembly declaration in December 2013.

Soil and land degradation causes not only a productivity decline and biodiversity loss but also affects vital soil/water ecosystem services, all of which are intricately linked with short- and long-term social, economic and environmental impacts. With further rapid increase in population and changing climatic conditions, land degradation will in the future be a greater challenge, impacting soil fertility, which, in turn, contributes to more soil erosion, declining crop yield and food insecurity.

Unfortunately, despite these obstacles, the importance of soil has not been recognized. Soil is not only a medium for plant growth and food production, but also plays a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to flood and drought. It is also the largest store of terrestrial carbon; its preservation contributes to climate change adaptation and mitigation, and therefore action must be taken for its preservation and restoration.

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