Citizens called on to monitor dams and rivers

Under the Water Research Commission, citizen scientists are able to play a role in protecting their water. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Under the Water Research Commission, citizen scientists are able to play a role in protecting their water. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

With the ever-worsening water shortages, South Africans are being roped in to help monitor rivers and dams.

“All South Africans can play a role in protecting their water,” said Bonani Madikizela, a research manager at the Water Research Commission (WRC).

South Africa is in the middle of its worst drought in 23 years; increasing water shortages in the semiarid region and climate change predictions show that water is going to become more scarce in the future.

The WRC has a citizen science programme to allow schools and members of the public to participate in water resource quality monitoring.

Citizen science enables nonscientists to be part of the research that informs policymakers’ decisions.

Co-funded by a number of government departments, such as science and technology, environmental affairs and water and sanitation, “[the WRC’s] role is to support the development of tools”, Madikizela says. The programme, which will continue until 2018, was funded to the tune of about R2.8-million, he says.

Environmental consulting organisation GroundTruth, in collaboration with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa), developed miniSASS, a way to measure river health.

MiniSASS is a citizen science version of the South African Scoring System, an inventory of life in South Africa’s watercourses. Small animals are an important indicator of river health; miniSASS enables citizens to identify whether animals on the list are present in the water and report this data to a national database.

There are other tools to measure the sediments and pollutants in the water (using a clarity tube to determine how cloudy the water is) and the amount of water in the stream (using the transparent velocity head rod), as well as weather monitoring and rain gauge resources.

“During their development and testing, we have worked with citizens, ranging from young children to senior citizens, some with no formal education or background in the sciences,” says GroundTruth’s Ntswaki Ditlhale.

“Citizens can use the tools to explore and learn about water resources and ecosystems … The tools can also be used to gather data and information, which will feed a national repository that can assist in the improved management of our water resources,” she says.

“This idea is that if a citizen’s knowledge of water resources – and associated impacts – is improved … [it] empowers them to interact with authorities and co-manage their resources in a more meaningful way.”

Wessa had an educational role, says Jim Taylor, the society’s director of environmental education.

“There are 1?200 schools that are registered with our ecoschools programme. They are all over

South Africa, and that’s a perfect vehicle for citizen science activity,” he says.

The department of water and sanitation had not replied to questions at the time of going to print.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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