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What have FreshWater Watch been up to in 2019

So far, 2019 has been a busy year for FreshWater Watch! Izzy, our Freshwater Research Manager, breaks down what the team have been up to. 


We’ve collected over 1,200 samples from 32 catchments, in 15 different countries. Our global network of scientists and research partners has published seven new research papers, all of which have taught us something new about the freshwater environment and the ways we as humans interact with it. This wouldn’t have been possible without data collected by FreshWater Watchers. At Earthwatch Europe’s head office in Oxford, we are constantly in awe of the fantastic research that continues to be carried out by volunteers around the world. Here are just a few examples of the things that FreshWater Watchers have been up to so far this year:

Improving water quality in the UK

In April, a dedicated group of volunteers from the charity Wild Oxfordshire gathered at Coombe Mill, Oxfordshire, to learn how to use FreshWater Watch to monitor phosphates, nitrates, and turbidity in the River Evenlode. Wild Oxfordshire are working together with the Evenlode Catchment Partnership and Thames Water to implement a range of different initiatives across the catchment that aim to reduce phosphate pollution in the river. As these initiatives are put in place, citizen scientists will be using FreshWater Watch to study the effect that they have on water quality across the catchment. The dedicated volunteers have been monitoring monthly since April and will continue for a further twelve months. We can’t wait to see what they find!


Volunteers from Wild Oxfordshire learning how to sample for water quality in the River Evenlode using FreshWater Watch


 Monitoring ecosystem health in Africa

Earthwatch scientist Luigi Ceccaroni, supported by AfriAlliance, recently travelled to the Mara Basin in Tanzania to introduce FreshWater Watch to communities there that rely on the river and wetlands as their primary source of water. The Tanzanian Ministry of Water lack s resources to regularly check the water quality. Using FreshWater Watch, the local community is now able to test the phosphate and nitrate levels and the turbidity of the water they are using.

Not only does this allow them to ensure that this vital ecosystem remains healthy, but 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, which is  required to regularly report on water quality despite being unable to measure it.



Earthwatch scientist Luigi demonstrates FreshWater Watch in the Mara Wetland, Tanzania


Elsewhere, in Zambia, schools located on the tributaries of the Kafue River (a tributary of the Zambesi) have received funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to 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 our citizen scientists in Africa are researching the health of important freshwater ecosystems, on which there is currently very little knowledge, in spite of their importance for humans and wildlife.


Collecting data on an unprecedented scale

WaterBlitzes are events which aim to collect as many FreshWater Watch samples as possible across a catchment over the course of a week or weekend. With volunteers collecting lots of data at the same time, scientists are then able to interpret a ‘snapshot’ of conditions across a wide area without having to factor in potential changes such as extreme weather. Back in April, 338 volunteers took part in Earthwatch’s eighth WaterBlitz in the Thames catchment. Because of these volunteers, we now have enough data from the region to identify locations where evidence of nutrient pollution is consistently present. In June, Bristol and Avon Rivers Trust ran another successful WaterBlitz in which 164 different sites were surveyed in a single week. The data collected that pollutant levels are high in many parts of the Bristol Avon catchment and have either stayed consistently high or increased in the past 3 years, demonstrating a greater need to address the causes and decrease the movement of pollutants into local watercourses.


From 20 to 23 September, Earthwatch are running the first ever pan-European WaterBlitz, with mass sampling events happening concurrently in the Thames Valley (UK), Dublin, Luxembourg, and Paris. All of these locations have seen efforts to reverse declining water quality, but gaps remain regarding the effectiveness of conservation actions across Europe. For the first time, we will be able to compare data across the continent and try to fill some of these knowledge gaps. You can find out more about the WaterBlitz and sign up to receive your free kit here.


 Turning city bankers into citizen scientists

A new initiative from Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), launched in April, sees bank employees, scientists, paddleboarders, kayakers, and local volunteers come together to collect scientific data on water quality, pollution, and resilience in urban centres across Europe. These new FreshWater Watch recruits will be 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.



Royal Bank of Canada employees taking FreshWater Watch samples on the River Liffey, Dublin, accompanied by scientists from Dublin City University


 Advancing freshwater science in Hungary

A team of scientists from the EU-funded MONOCLE project travelled to Lake Balaton, Hungary, last month, armed with high-tech environmental sensors, drones, and some humble FreshWater Watch kits. MONOCLE partners 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. Lake Balaton provided the perfect setting to test 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 other 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.


 Scientists from the MONOCLE team compare FreshWater Watch samples to data collected by sensors, drones, and satellites.

Internal Updates 

In the midst of all of this volunteer activity across the world, Earthwatch staff have been very busy too. This year we have welcomed two new recruits to the FreshWater Watch team of scientists – Isabel (AKA ‘Izzy’, Freshwater Research Manager), who joined in January, and Kesella (AKA ‘Kes’, Freshwater Research Assistant), who joined in July. They have both been kept very busy learning about all of the past and ongoing FreshWater Watch research projects. In June, Izzy spoke about FreshWater Watch at the Symposium for European Freshwater Scientists in Zagreb, Croatia, showcasing FreshWater Watch research to scientists from across the continent and beyond. She will also be speaking at SIWI’s World Water Week in Stockholm at the end of August, specifically focussing on FreshWater Watch projects in Africa. Kes, meanwhile, has been focusing on reviewing the FreshWater Watch website and creating a project update to send out to all of our citizen scientists.

None of this valuable research would be possible without the many volunteers who have collected data for us this year, and we would like to extend a huge thank you to all of them. We look forward to seeing FreshWater Watch citizen scientists continue to improve our knowledge and understanding of the health of freshwater ecosystems into 2020 and beyond, and we can’t wait to see what we discover next!


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