Water warriors air our rivers’ dirty laundry

2014-10-26 15:00

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Three times a day, Zongile Ngubane steps out of her home in Howick’s Shiyabazali informal settlement armed with a large, clear cylinder.

With this “clarity tube”, part of a monitoring system called miniSASS, Ngubane can test the quality of the water in the Umgeni River, which winds past her house.

She has no formal scientific training, but Ngubane is part of a network of water warriors keeping tabs on South Africa’s rivers.

Once Ngubane’s work is done, she sends her findings off to local environmental group the Dusi uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct). Duct submits these to the SA Scoring System (SASS), a river-health biomonitoring method that anyone can access on the internet.

This way, problem areas can be identified almost daily.

Mark Graham is the director of GroundTruth, which developed miniSASS. He says many communities in South Africa are worried about the state of their rivers, but testing is often a lengthy, expensive process. Scientists must gather data and send it on to laboratories.

Even if the government has results, those who most need to know – people living alongside the rivers – are kept in the dark about the water they use for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

“This kit puts the power back with the citizens. We are creating a new generation of citizen scientists,” Graham said. “You don’t have to be literate to participate, only enthusiastic. The system was designed so that even children can join in.”

GroundTruth is using NGOs to reach out to some of South Africa’s 26 000 schools.

The Wildlife and Environment Society of SA’s EcoSchools programme reaches 1 111 schools and the organisation is also teaching pupils how to use the miniSASS kit.

Kholosa Magudu, a water health specialist at Duct, works with 35 schools in the uMngeni area. “The miniSASS is our major tool for looking after our river. We use it for research, but most importantly as a citizen’s science tool. It is quite novel,” Magudu said.

A miniSASS kit costs R700 and GroundTruth organises funding for communities that need it.

As well as the clarity tube, citizen scientists use nets to catch bugs and other animal life from a particular spot in a river. These creatures indicate how healthy the water is and their presence, along with data from the clarity tube’s contents, can be sent to SASS by SMS or uploaded on to the website.

The monitors are unpaid volunteers, but GroundTruth gives each person R200 airtime a month so that sending their data doesn’t hurt their pockets.

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