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.
Over the last ten years this extensive database has enabled Earthwatch to research global trends, explore local issues, engage communities and share data with national governments. And the 30,000 milestone comes just as we launch a new goal for our freshwater pollution programme: 100,000 people safeguarding 10,000 water bodies across Europe and Africa, by 2030.
The urgent need to act
There is increasing awareness of freshwater pollution – and there is an urgent need to address the lack of progress in improving water bodies around the world.
In the UK this urgency is increasingly apparent. We are seeing multiple reports of pollution incidents, such as sewerage network discharges and overflows. Last year, for example, the Guardian reported that water companies in England had discharged untreated sewage into rivers more than 200,000 times the previous year. A couple of months later, the Environment Agency reported that all the rivers, lakes and streams in England are polluted. This pollution comes from the chemicals we use every day, from farms, homes, roads, sewage treatment works and more.
At the same time, the public are using our waterbodies more than ever, for open water swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, rowing, fishing, dog walking. This month, writing for the Wildlife and Countryside Link (of which Earthwatch is a member), psychologist Dr Matthew White, outlined his research into the benefits of ‘blue space’ to our emotional wellbeing. It is imperative that we recognise and take steps to protect the valuable contribution of our freshwater bodies to human health, both physical and mental. This month Wildlife and Countryside Link launched its Blueprint for Water outlining the steps we need to take.
The science of FreshWater Watch – and why it matters
FreshWater Watch project 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. Healthy freshwater ecosystems usually have very small amounts of nutrients – just enough to sustain the plants that live there. 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.
Poorer quality water also needs heavier treatment before it is safe to drink and to use. Our food can become contaminated and other services that natural ecosystems provide, like regulating the climate and storing carbon, are hampered. This can have a widespread impact on our lives.
Citizen science is a gamechanger
Citizen science projects enable the mass collection of data by ordinary members of the public. This data in turn provides objective evidence that can drive action, locally and at scale. FreshWater Watch offers an engaging and accessible way for the public to get involved, make their voices heard and drive change in their local area.
But the fact is that researchers and government bodies don’t have the numbers or resources to collect this data themselves. We all need members of the public to get out there and collect data, so that we can understand what condition our rivers are in, and where and why pollution hotspots are occurring.
Without data we can’t monitor the problem, provide evidence to hold polluters to account or identify the solutions to secure long-term environmental improvement. It is our greatest tool to make change happen.
How can you get involved?
There are several ways to join the movement and make your voice heard.
- Get outside! Explore your river, get to know it, visit it, play in it…and if you spot something wrong, report it! In the UK you can do this by visiting www.gov.uk/report-an-environmental-incident
- Start or sign a petition asking governments to act. River Action UK has recently published a petition calling for environmental protection budgets in England and Wales to be doubled to fight river pollution.
- Join or set up a FreshWater Watch community group to monitor your local fresh water. They will support you to take regular, targeted measurements in your community.
- Look out for WaterBlitz events. At the moment these take place in spring and autumn in various locations around Europe.
- Write to your local MP, expressing your concerns and sharing any data you’ve collected.
- Support the charities that protect our rivers. Every donation makes a difference. You can donate to Earthwatch on our Giving pages.