By Arnold Chasaya
Communities play a critical role in the sustainable management of natural endowments.
In Zambia, one of the most precious natural resources, which continues to dictate the economic well-being of indigenous communities, is fresh water. For example, with more than half of the country’s population living within the Kafue River catchment area (according to Researcher Michael Kambole), there is no doubt that the river is a pillar on which many Zambians’ livelihoods depend.
But in order for the country’s critical fresh water bodies to be managed sustainably, there is an urgent need for both policymakers and conservationists across the country to find a way of empowering community members with basic research skills and tools so that they can take a leading role in initiatives aimed at assuring the integrity of natural water bodies. One of the ways of empowering communities with an active voice at conservation is citizen science.
Citizen science, also known as community science, is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur (or nonprofessional) scientists, according to a 2013 write-up by Author Gura Trisha. Citizen science is sometimes described as “public participation in scientific research,” participatory monitoring, and participatory action research whose outcomes are often advancements in scientific research, as well as an increase in the public’s understanding of science.
Using basic scientific research tools, community members within the Lower Kafue River basin are monitoring quality of their natural water bodies, by closely observing the levels of nitrate and phosphates in the water. The citizen scientists are also monitoring turbidity, which is a measure of the degree to which the water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particulates.
The more total suspended solids in the water, the cloudier it seems and the higher the turbidity. The suspended particles absorb heat from the sunlight, making turbid waters become warmer, and so reducing the concentration of oxygen in the water. As a consequence of the particles settling to the bottom, shallow lakes fill in faster, fish eggs and insect larvae are covered and suffocated, according to a report by an online publication Lenntech.
Meanwhile, nitrate is one of the most common groundwater contaminants in rural areas. It is regulated in drinking water primarily because excess levels can cause “blue baby” disease, a condition where a baby’s skin turns blue due to a decreased amount of hemoglobin in the baby’s blood.
Although nitrate levels that affect infants do not pose a direct threat to older children and adults, they do indicate the possible presence of other more serious residential or agricultural contaminants, such as bacteria or pesticides.
On the other hand, phosphates enter waterways from human and animal waste, phosphorus rich bedrock, laundry, cleaning, industrial effluents, and fertilizer runoff. If too much phosphate is present in the water the algae and weeds will grow rapidly, may choke the waterway, and use up large amounts of precious oxygen. The result may be the death of many fish and aquatic organisms, notes Brian Oram of Water Research Center.
In its relentless effort to help manage natural water bodies sustainably, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Zambia and its strategic partners are providing the citizen scientists with the support they need to help assure the quality of critical fresh water bodies in their communities.
Speaking recently during a citizens’ engagement tour of the Lower Kafue River catchment area, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Zambia Fresh Water Programme Officer Diilwe Syamuntu observed that citizen science would not have come at a better time than now when community participation in conservation initiatives counts more than ever.
“With citizen science, community members, who are the custodians of these natural resources, are in a position to influence policy in the conservation sphere,” he noted.
Mr. Syamuntu also urged the citizen scientists to prioritize sharing their observations with their respective communities, so that a community motivated solution could be found to various factors compromising the quality of water.
“As you monitor this water, always remember to share your observations with the community so that you are on the same page in terms of the quality of the water you are using. If you sit on the observatory results, you will be defeating the whole purpose of citizen science,” emphasized Mr. Syamuntu.
Speaking earlier, WWF-Zambia Water Stewardship Officer Gershom Pule emphasized the need for more concerted efforts in the management of natural water bodies. He said that since water is a shared resource, it requires collective action to be managed sustainably. “Collaborative planning and action on fresh water will sustain the resource. Therefore, communities, private and public sectors must work together,” appealed Mr. Pule.
Meanwhile, the citizen scientists praised WWF-Zambia and its partners for introducing them to the science.
One of the visibly satisfied citizen scientists, Kalaluka Mwiya, disclosed that since he was introduced to the science, he has been helping other community members appreciate their role in conservation. Mr. Mwiya noted also that by sharing his scientific observations with the rest of his community, he has seen a drastic improvement in the quality of the water bodies surrounding his community.
The citizen scientists are spread across community schools, government departments and parastatal institutions within the Lower Kafue River catchment area.
After they have monitored the water, the citizen scientists move on to upload their observable results onto FreshWater Watch, a mobile application accessible to other citizen scientists across the globe.
Once uploaded, the results are automatically made available to other citizen scientists spread across various fresh water basins around the globe.
There is no doubt that with citizen science, the significant role communities play in natural resources management will be harnessed fully for the benefit of both nature and the human race as a whole.