FreshWater Watch

Since January 2019, I have been leading Earthwatch Europe’s citizen science project FreshWater Watch. I now believe that citizen science can help improve the world’s water for everyone.

The volunteers I work with are using citizen science to feed their curiosity about the natural world and to protect the health of their local water. People all around the world care about water. Through FreshWater Watch, I help those people to get their message heard by governments, the water sector, professional scientists, and society.

FreshWater Watch in Numbers

My FreshWater Watch Highlights

Improving water quality in the UK

In the UK, many rivers suffer with pollution from agricultural fertilizers and sewage spills. I love meeting FreshWater Watch volunteers up and down the country who are using their data to demand change. A particularly dedicated group of volunteers from the charity Wild Oxfordshire have been monitoring phosphates, nitrates, and turbidity in their local river – the River Evenlode for the last 12 months. Turbidity is a measure of how clear the water is, and high phosphates and nitrates can be detrimental to wildlife in the river. The volunteers discovered that phosphates and turbidity both increase downstream of rural sewage works. Alongside many other UK groups, they are now putting pressure on the government to change the law so that sewage cannot end up in our rivers – all supported by the data we helped them to collect.

Monitoring famous African wetlands

My colleague Luigi 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.

Elsewhere, in Zambia, schools located on the tributaries of the Kafue River (a tributary of the Zambesi) 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.

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, we 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. We are about to run our tenth 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. We also work with Bristol and Avon Rivers Trust to run WaterBlitzes in the west of England. Last year, we ran 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. Now, for the first time, we have been 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. The data show that pollutant levels are high across all of our cities, and have stayed either consistently high or increased in the past 3 years. Clearly, there is a greater need to address the causes and decrease the movement of pollutants into watercourses on a continental scale and I’m looking forward to pushing this issue.

Turning city bankers into citizen scientists

In April 2019, I helped launch an initiative from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), which 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 FreshWater Watchers 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. The willingness of the bankers to embrace their inner curiosity about the world of water is wonderful to watch, and I am sure their research will make a real difference to the cities they live in.

Advancing freshwater science using new technologies

A team of scientists from the EU funded MONOCLE project 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. We are testing 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 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.

Connecting citizen scientists with policymakers

There is no point in collecting all of this data if it is not going to be used to make a difference. Many of our volunteers join FreshWater Watch because they are concerned about their local water, or because they want to learn more about it. For these volunteers, it is absolutely vital that, when they discover a problem, they have confidence that it will be acted upon. That’s why I have been working closely with governments and the water sector to make sure they are able to use FreshWater Watch data. The Water Resources Agency in Zambia and the Ministry of Water in Tanzania already use FreshWater Watch data in their work. In the next few years, I hope to see this spread across the world. I am already in conversation with the English Environment Agency and the United Nations. Watch this space!

Volunteers from Oxfordshire learn how to monitor their river

FreshWater Watch in the Mara Basin, Tanzania

RBC bankers become FreshWater Watchers

Using my mermaid tail to promote a ‘WaterBlitz’

Scientists compare FreshWater Watch to data collected by satellites and drones

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