Thirteen wasy to tell whether your water is healthy or not

Throughout South Africa, rivers and streams are vital to the livelihoods of millions of people. With thousands of waterways spread over our 1.2 million square kilometres, ascertaining the health of our water is often difficult. 

To tackle this, the World and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), developed a kit. The kit is a Stream Assessment Scoring System, known as miniSASS, used to rate and monitor the quality of streams and rivers. 

Using it is simple: teams or individuals collect a sample from the river then search for 13 macro-invertebrates that will be present if the water is healthy. The insects are pictured on a sheet that can be downloaded from the internet. “The beauty of this system is that the invertebrates are visible. You simply look and see what you find, then consult the sheet and tick it off,” says Dr Jim Taylor, director of environmental education at Wessa. 

Information is then noted and uploaded to Google Earth. “Online there is a perennial river map of the whole world. You find your river, click on it and add your data. Data is stored in the cloud — it’s free and part of the public domain. Anyone can use it.” 

The status of the river is immediately reported: a blue crab indicates a healthy river, while red means that the river is unhealthy. The live data is amalgamated, creating a map of the overall state of South Africa’s rivers and streams. 

The miniSASS kit has already been adopted by individuals, eco rangers, community groups, companies, government officials and international bodies; schools have also become involved.

“What I’ve really found exciting is the response range of different people. From a seven-year-old to a 70-year-old, from a manager in an office to a field worker — everyone gets excited and amazed when they see with their own eyes the health of the river, and when they see what they can do,” says Thandeka Dambuza, Project Manager of miniSASS. 

A mobile app is in the process of being built.  This system has the added benefit of being GPS-enabled, so location is immediately known and photos can be uploaded on site.

Taylor says: “In the past, you did ‘grab sampling’. You took a clean bottle, took a sample and sent it to the lab. They did a chemical analysis and you got your results. So factories would police their pollutants the night before, take a sample the next day, send it to the lab and then say ‘look, we have clean water, here is the evidence.’ ” 

This citizen-based system is simpler, but it holds up in a court of law. There is also corresponding information on how to better manage the rivers in the area.  Going forward, miniSASS data will be used to create a fuller rehabilitation programme for the areas. 

 “The key fact is to allow the river to tell its own story. And for people to be able to read the river’s story according to indicator agents. Those indicators are a sign of life — continuous life means a healthy river.”