Wa­ter war­riors air our rivers’ dirty laun­dry

CityPress - - News - YOLANDI GROE­NEWALD yolandi.groe­newald@city­press.co.za

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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