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Wednesday, 08 June 2022 13:32

Earthwatch celebrates new tools and reach to help tackle freshwater pollution around the globe

Earthwatch’s FreshWater Watch project is aiming for even greater impact with a new citizen science data platform, more community groups and a new calendar of WaterBlitz events. 

The new FreshWater Watch platform, powered by international data mapping tool ESRI, offers powerful visualisations of globally collected data, allowing users to easily view and interpret water quality data recorded from around the world. 

Its launch comes after a number of new river community groups joined FreshWater Watch in a bid to collect more scientific data on local pollution levels.  

In the last six months, Earthwatch has welcomed community groups from the UK, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands. The aims of each group are unique to the local area, but being part of FreshWater Watch offers the opportunity to work with Earthwatch to compare local and global trends, explore regional issues, engage communities and share data with national governments. In a recent survey, 70% of community groups reported that they have been using FreshWater Watch data to initiate local action on water pollution. 

Rebecca Lewis, from Riverfly on the Esk, explains what her community group aims to achieve with FreshWater Watch: “We hope to add to a baseline of data that can be used by the environment agencies to help make a positive difference to the river. We also want to increase knowledge and understanding of the river ecology in the community.” 

FreshWater Watch’s international impact is also set to increase, with a new pilot project in Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi and Sierra Leone, to design a citizen science based water quality process targeted at SDG 6.3.2 reporting. Funded by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), work will start in earnest to design the programme with local Ministry and partners in the four countries. The Earthwatch team will train community leaders who will coordinate citizen scientists in local communities in each of the target river basins. 

The new project follows a number of FreshWater Watch demonstration projects in Africa. In 2020, FreshWater Watch was independently cited as an example of a project that is well placed to provide meaningful contributions to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’. 

Dr Steven Loiselle, Senior Research Lead for Fresh Water at Earthwatch said: “FreshWater Watch through citizen science helps make connections and build an understanding of our precious freshwater for generations to come. Our work in Africa and around the world really does show how citizen scientists, large and small are making significant contributions to help our planet through national monitoring and reporting.”  

Globally active groups can be viewed on an interactive map.

The science behind FreshWater Watch 

FreshWater Watch asks people to use specialist kits to measure the nitrate and phosphate levels in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, which in turn reflects the health of our rivers. 

One of the biggest threats to freshwater comes from an excessive inflow of nutrients, in particular nitrates and phosphates. Nitrates and phosphates occur naturally in the environment and are essential for plant growth. However, human activity on land can cause extra nutrients to get into the water. Nutrients are commonly present in domestic and industrial waste and sewage, as well as in the fertilisers that wash off of farmland and into rivers, lakes and streams. 

When too many nutrients are present in fresh water, an effect called ‘eutrophication’ occurs. The extra nutrients feed the rapid growth of algae, leading to dangerous algal blooms which can suffocate other life and therefore cause declines in biodiversity. 

Last year Earthwatch celebrated a milestone 30,000 datasets submitted by citizen scientists to its FreshWater Watch database from freshwater bodies around the world. This data has been collected by over 14,000 people, who have analysed water samples from more than 1,200 waterbodies – from chalk streams in Oxfordshire, UK to Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. 

FreshWater Watch supports river stewardship groups to monitor their local rivers throughout the year, and also runs WaterBlitz events where the general public can join testing during a specific weekend. As part of Earthwatch’s membership of the Evenlode Catchment Partnership, they will be running an Evenlode WaterBlitz in Oxfordshire from 1 to 4 July 2022.  

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