Combatting Soil Erosion to Help Achieve Zero Hunger and Clean Water: IAEA Commemorates World Soil Day

05 Dec 2019
Joanne Liou, IAEA

Over 45 billion tons of soil are lost to erosion every year. Farmers and agricultural authorities in several countries have succeeded in slowing down erosion with the help of nuclear techniques. Here are their stories from Zimbabwe, Argentina and Sri Lanka. 

All over the world, the Earth’s fine soil particles are losing ground to erosion. As 95 percent of food is cultivated in soil, the health and availability of Earth’s living surface impacts the quality and quantity of the food we produce. “Agricultural landscapes lose valuable soil mainly through soil redistribution processes,” said Emmanuel Chikwari, Head of the Chemistry and Soil Research Institute in Zimbabwe. “Once the soil resource is lost, it cannot be replaced for generations.”

While wind and rain will always cause some erosion, this is amplified by improper agricultural practices, overgrazing, deforestation and climate change. Each year, approximately 45 billion tons of soil are displaced from agricultural use, and land is abandoned due to deteriorating productivity caused by erosion. The topic of this year’s World Soil Day is soil erosion — a process that nuclear techniques can help track and mitigate.

Healthy soils play an important role in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — on hunger, clean water and the protection of the terrestrial environment. By applying nuclear techniques to measure and monitor the impact of land use and subsequently identify strategies to mitigate erosion, the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is working to help conserve this vital resource.

What is soil erosion?

Soil erosion, the most common type of land degradation, is a natural process that displaces the upper layer of soil, which is where plants get most of their nutrients and water needed for growing. Erosion is accelerated by human activities, such as removing the natural vegetation that protects the lands’ surface and converting it to cultivated and pasturelands. Soil erosion is particularly damaging for countries in tropical, subtropical and arid climate zones. It is most prevalent in Africa, affecting 65 percent of cropland, followed by Latin America with 51 percent and Asia with 38 percent.

The impact of soil erosion runs far beyond food production. “Soil erosion significantly reduces cropland productivity and contributes to the pollution of watercourses, wetlands and lakes,” said Hugo Velasco, Professor at the Physics Department of San Luis National University and Independent Researcher at the National Research Council of Argentina (CONICET).


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.