Enlisting citizen scientists MiniSASS evolves into a smartphone app What’s in the citizen science toolkit

2015-05-23 11:08
Baba Cele (right) shows a boy at the workshop in Mpophomeni how the clarity tube works.
Shelagh McLoughlin

Baba Cele (right) shows a boy at the workshop in Mpophomeni how the clarity tube works. PHOTOS: Shelagh McLoughlin

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A RECENT story in The Witness reported that sewage flowing into Midmar Dam was affecting water quality. The bigger picture is that the state of South Africa’s water resources is dire. With over 40% of the country’s rivers critically endangered, urgent focus is clearly needed.

The good news is that an “Arab Spring of water resource monitoring” may be just around the corner. That’s according to water scientist Dr Mark Graham, founder of GroundTruth, a Hilton environmental consulting firm. Graham is a Dusi Canoe Marathon veteran and his long-time paddling partner, Dr Jim Taylor, is director of environmental education for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA). Their two organisations are collaborating on a joint venture for the Water Research Commission (WRC), a parastatal that has the potential to take water monitoring to a new level.

The Citizen Science Catchment Toolkit Project is developing and testing a collection of water-monitoring tools and “interventions” that can be used by ordinary people (see box). Graham envisages this toolkit making it possible for water and weather data to be collected by citizens on a grand scale, using simple tools, the Internet and smartphone app technology.

Most importantly, said Taylor, “people will be able to act wisely on this information and ensure that sustainable water practices are followed”.

Describing himself as a “businessman with a conscience”, Graham has been involved with developing low-tech tools for water-quality monitoring for several years, and in 2013 his company won the Community Empowerment Award from the WRC for developing miniSASS, a river-health monitoring tool. (see box).

Bottom-up approach

The toolkit is supporting a much bigger project, the Adopt a River (AaR) Programme, which is being run by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

Bonani Madikizela, a water research manager at WRC, said the toolkit project and AaR are the result of a decision made by the government some years ago to use a bottom-up approach to monitoring water in the country. “We’re trying to take the responsibility for water resource management to the public,” he said.

AaR was launched in 2010 and, according to DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau, has a number of objectives, including promoting a “spirit of volunteerism”, education, poverty alleviation, partnerships and work training, all related to the protection of water resources.

“The intention is (eventually) to move from communities adopting small stretches of the rivers towards adopting catchments,” he said. “There is no point in cleaning and monitoring downstream while upstream is not clean.”

This ties in with an important aspect of the toolkit project’s brief, which is that it should have a “trans-boundary” application, because rivers have no boundaries. To this end, the inclusion of the cellphone app and miniSASS website will enable users across the sub-continent and beyond to contribute data from their areas.

Sarah Williams, co-ordinator of the toolkit project, said the website, set up in 2013, is receiving data “just about every day, with interest from government to schools and individuals”, and as far afield as India, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Citizens monitoring sewage spills

The toolkit was on display at a workshop in Mpophomeni recently, and the venue, the Nokulunga Gumede Memorial, was apt. Just metres away lay a pool of grey water surrounded by lush grass, the result of spillage from the township’s sewers. In the other direction, less than a kilometre away, gleamed Midmar Dam, the main water supply for greater Pietermaritzburg and Durban, which is currently being polluted by the same sewerage system.

According to Graham, effluent draining from Mpophomeni into Midmar is causing eutrophication, a form of pollution caused by excess nutrients that can result in algal bloom, oxygen depletion and eventual poisoning of the water.

The proximity of Mpophomeni’s dysfunctional sewers to this crucial dam makes the township a prime candidate to be involved in a pilot study managed by the Dusi uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct) and also part of the toolkit project. Community involvement in water monitoring isn’t new here. Workshop organiser Liz Taylor, who’s married to Jim Taylor, got involved with Duct six years ago and started a small branch in Howick near her home.

“We discovered that [the sewage crisis] in Mpophomeni was very bad and sewage was going into Midmar,” she said, explaining how Duct became involved in working with the uMgungundlovu District Municipality on the problem. While the organisation couldn’t do much about the root cause of the problem — serious flaws in the design and construction of the sewerage infrastructure — they could tackle the compounding effect of damage caused by residents’ ignorance and vandalism.

The Mpophomeni Sanitation Education Project (MSEP) was started four years ago in partnership with WESSA, and focuses on education, working closely with schools in Mpophomeni. Street theatre around issues such as sanitation and toilet etiquette, biodiversity and environmental health, is part of the MSEP programme, and residents are also taught how to monitor and report sewage spills.

MSEP works with 10 local people, called enviro champs, who monitor spills and work with the municipality to get them fixed. “They report on spilling manholes, illegal dumping and fresh-water leaks,” said Liz. “They keep close contact with ward councillors and attend ward meetings.” The champs are given airtime worth R200 per month and have a list of plumbers’ phone numbers to dial when they spot a spilling manhole.

Most of the enviro champs were present at the workshop, explaining to participants about tools and interventions at the different stations. According to Ayanda Lipheyana, co-ordinator of the group, their monitoring of manholes has been “very successful. We developed a spread sheet at the beginning and have been monitoring since 2012 how long it takes to get a problem fixed. We’re now down to a minimum of one day.”

Tackling service delivery

“Service delivery, especially related to water, is one of South Africa’s biggest challenges,” said Jim, adding that the tools being gathered could help alleviate the crisis because they enable communities to understand what’s happening in their environment and intervene or ask for help if necessary.

The work done by enviro champ Zongile Ngubane is an example. She lives at Shiyabazali next to the outflow pipe from the Howick Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW), and takes a reading with a clarity tube — which measures turbidity — three times daily of the water being released.

Her readings are “giving us an accurate indication for how the WWTW is doing”, said Graham. “The results are showing that the effluent is often not compliant with DWS standards.”

He said the WWTW is not operating properly and “some partially treated sewage is finding its way to Albert Falls Dam and eventually into Durban’s main water supply. “This is a good example of citizen engagement with a tool that helps them see the problems we all face,” he said. The clarity tube was also developed by GroundTruth, which adapted a similar instrument from New Zealand to suit local conditions.

Awareness of the issues and willingness to use the tools are important requirements, and here there are encouraging signs. “The [pollution] situation is getting worse, because we have more settlements and development, but there’s more general awareness,” said Liz.

Lipheyana agreed, saying that residents are “aware of the issues”.

Once the testing phase of the toolkit is complete it will be rolled out by DWS as part of the expansion of the Adopt a River Programme. Madikizela said while there’s still discussion about how to get people to monitor rivers voluntarily, miniSASS is already part of the school curriculum, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

Graham also sees schools as a force that should be harnessed. “There are 26 000 schools in SA. If each one became a monitoring station, every river in the country could be covered and its health monitored. They could also monitor rainfall, send their findings to a central point and track climate change.

“This could become a powerful social movement. Being able to see what is going on by using these tools is much more powerful than when others tell us what we should do,” said Jim.

“For many people, once they discover an issue in this way, their relationship and practices relating to water change for the better, forever.”

THE evolution of miniSASS, a river health-monitoring tool developed for use by non-experts and an integral part of the Citizen Science Toolkit Project, has been swift.

What started as a derivation of the South African Scoring System (SASS), an aquatic bio-monitoring tool that has been used in South Africa for over 30 years, is now being developed into a smartphone app with an anticipated release in July.

MiniSASS was developed by reducing the 90-plus traditional SASS aquatic invertebrate taxa that are used to derive river-health classes into 13 simple groups, to produce data that gives an indication of the health of rivers.

The tool, used for over 10 years by environmental educators and the South African River Health Programme (RHP), consists of a simple net and a site information sheet to record samples found in the river and give ecological information about the site.

A website was recently developed that includes the interactive Google Earth map and database, making it possible for miniSASS users to explore their catchment, find their river and then upload results.

The latest improvement is an app for smartphones that is currently being developed by a company in Pretoria. The Department of Science and Technology is spending R200 000 on the project, which is meant to be ready by the middle of the year. Shanna Nienaber, deputy-director for environmental services at DST, said it will “allow for a larger group of South Africans to access and upload data to the miniSASS database, given that more people have cellphones than computers with Internet access.

“We see citizen science tools as an area with potential to close the perceived gaps between government’s role in service delivery and [that] of citizens in responding to and supporting different aspects of service delivery.”

TOOLS to measure the health and condition of rivers, estuaries, wetlands and springs, for example:

• miniSASS;

• the miniSASS website;

• miniSASS smartphone app;

• home-made rain gauge; and

• clarity tube

Interventions working with communities and groups in the catchment, including:

• street theatre;

• teaching people how to monitor and report sewage spills; and

• river walks, training courses (accredited and non-accredited).

• For more more information and to get involved, e-mail info@minisass.org or coral@duct.org.za

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