Taking Charge of FreshWater Watch

After six months or so in my new job, I feel that I am finally starting to get to grips with citizen science and with the project I am running – FreshWater Watch. So far this year, the citizen scientists I work with have collected 1,200 samples from 32 catchments in 15 different countries. It has been a very busy few months and I am overwhelmed and a little in awe of everything that my team and I have accomplished so far this year. Here are some of my highlights:

  1. Improving water quality in the UK

In April, a dedicated group of volunteers from the charity Wild Oxfordshire gathered at Coombe Mill, Oxfordshire, to learn how to use FreshWater Watch to monitor phosphates, nitrates, and turbidity in their local river – the River Evenlode. Turbidity is a measure of how clear the water is, and high phosphates and nitrates can be detrimental to wildlife in the river. Wild Oxfordshire are working together with the Evenlode Catchment Partnership and the water utilities company Thames Water to implement a range of different initiatives across the catchment that aim to reduce phosphate pollution in the river. As these initiatives are put in place, citizen scientists will be using FreshWater Watch to study the effect that they have on water quality across the catchment. The dedicated volunteers have been monitoring every month since April and will continue for twelve months.

Volunteers from Wild Oxfordshire learning how to sample water quality in the River Evenlode using FreshWater Watch

Wild Oxfordshire are just one of many groups conducting similar research on ecosystem restoration in the UK and Europe.

  1. Monitoring ecosystem health in Africa

Earthwatch scientist Luigi Ceccaroni, supported by AfriAlliance, recently travelled to the Mara Basin in Tanzania to introduce FreshWater Watch to communities who rely on the river and wetlands as their primary source of water. Here, the Ministry of Water lack the resources to regularly check the quality of the water. Using FreshWater Watch, the local community are now able to test the water that they are using for phosphates, nitrates, and turbidity. Not only does this allow them to ensure that the ecosystem upon which they rely remains healthy, nutrients and turbidity can also act as early warning indicators for more dangerous bacterial contamination of the water itself. The data they collect are extremely valuable to the Ministry of Water, who are required to regularly report on water quality despite being unable to measure it.

Earthwatch scientist Luigi Ceccaroni demonstrates FreshWater Watch in the Mara Wetland, Tanzania

Elsewhere, in Zambia, schools located on the tributaries of the Kafue River (a tributary of the Zambesi) have received funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to act as stewards for the river by monitoring its health using FreshWater Watch. The data will be sent directly to the Zambian Water Agency WARMA, allowing them to meet their international reporting obligations. All of the citizen scientists using FreshWater Watch in Africa are researching the health of important freshwater ecosystems about which very little is currently known in spite of their importance for humans and wildlife alike.

  1. Collecting data on an unprecedented scale

WaterBlitzes are events which aim to collect as many FreshWater Watch samples as possible across a water catchment over the course of a week or weekend. By collecting lots of data at the same time, scientists are able to capture a ‘snapshot’ of conditions across a wide area without having to factor in potential changes due to natural variations that result from e.g. weather patterns. Back in April, 338 volunteers took part in Earthwatch’s eighth WaterBlitz in the Thames catchment, England, and we now have enough data from this region to begin to identify locations where evidence of nutrient pollution is consistently present in every survey. In June, Bristol and Avon Rivers Trust ran another successful WaterBlitz in the west of England, in which 164 different sites were surveyed in a single week. The data collected shows that pollutant levels are high in many parts of the Bristol Avon area and have stayed either consistently high or increased in the past 3 years, demonstrating a greater need to address the causes and decrease the movement of pollutants into local watercourses.

From 20th to 23rd September, Earthwatch are running the first ever pan-European WaterBlitz, with mass sampling events happening over the same weekend in the Thames Valley (UK), Dublin, Luxembourg, and Paris. All of these locations have been trying to improve water quality, but we still don’t know if these efforts have been effective. For the first time, we will be able to compare data across the continent and try to fill some of these knowledge gaps, getting a better understanding of the health of waterbodies across Europe.

  1. Turning city bankers into citizen scientists

A new initiative from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) launched in April, sees bank employees, scientists, paddleboarders, kayakers, and local volunteers come together to collect scientific data on water quality, pollution, and resilience in cities across Europe. These new FreshWater Watch recruits will be measuring the health of small streams in Luxembourg, algal blooms in Parisian ponds, and the impacts of storm events on water quality in the River Liffey, Dublin. They are all collecting valuable data that will help us to understand how to better manage precious water resources in these heavily urbanised and impacted environments. I have had the opportunity to travel to all three of these cities to meet the scientists and bankers involved, and I am blown away by their dedication and enthusiasm.

Royal Bank of Canada employees taking FreshWater Watch samples on the River Liffey, Dublin, accompanied by scientists from Dublin City University

  1. Advancing freshwater science in Hungary

A team of scientists from the EU funded MONOCLE project travelled to Lake Balaton, Hungary, last month, armed with high-tech environmental sensors, drones, and some humble FreshWater Watch kits. MONOCLE partners are developing low-cost sensors, methods, and technologies to support water quality monitoring by regional and national agencies, and exploring the role local communities and volunteers can play in using these sensors to collect data. Lake Balaton provided the perfect setting to test how FreshWater Watch can complement these sensors and form part of an integrated system that allows citizen scientists to better monitor complex lake ecosystems. Over the next few years, these systems will be tested in other locations where FreshWater Watch is already used regularly, including on the shores of the second-oldest, second-largest, second-deepest lake in the world – Lake Tanganyika.

Scientists from the MONOCLE team compare FreshWater Watch to data collected by sensors, drones, and satellites.

6. Traveling to conferences

In June, I spoke about FreshWater Watch at the Symposium for European Freshwater Scientists in Zagreb, Croatia, showcasing FreshWater Watch research to scientists from across the continent and beyond. I will also be speaking at SIWI’s World Water Week in Stockholm next week, specifically focussing on FreshWater Watch projects in Africa.


My first six months at Earthwatch have been a steep learning curve, but I have loved every minute. Every day, I am confronted with the fact that 320 volunteers so far this year have been out and collected data on freshwater ecosystems just for the joy of it. I really hope that I can do their hard work and dedication justice by ensuring that their data is put to good use.

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