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FreshWater Watch: empowering Zambia’s next generation of citizen scientists

Enock Mwangilwa, National Office Projects’ Officer with the Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia (WECSZ), has a strong connection to nature. We spoke to him about his FreshWater Watch community group. FreshWater Watch is the citizen science programme from Earthwatch Europe that engages citizen scientists to monitor the water quality of rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands around the world.

Tell us about your connection with nature

I have a Bachelor of Education in Environmental Education. This, alongside my professional experience, is what has constantly connected me to nature as I think, plan, teach, organise and implement conservation initiatives in my country. I have experienced nature and its related challenges ranging from lack of awareness about various environmental problems and issues, deforestation, climate change, poor waste management, unsustainable harvesting and pollution to mention but a few. This has made me establish a firm personal commitment to do my honest part in conservation by taking the initiative and pursuing practical responses to nature’s call for restoration in various sectors.

How did you hear about Earthwatch and its global FreshWater Watch project?

I did not know about Earthwatch until the year 2019, when WECSZ was awarded a grant to enable a science water quality monitoring initiative and I became an assistant project manager for the Menda Data Pamo (MEDNAPO) project in Zambia, credit to Ceswa Joseph Mpandamabula who coined the project. It was a result of our efforts to find a simplified water quality monitoring kit that we came across Earthwatch online, and through WWF Zambia.

Reading the water quality score card, Chingola, Upper Kafue River. Photo credit: Clement Chiimbwe & Enock Mwangilwa

What originally motivated you to participate in the FreshWater Watch project?

We sought funding for a water quality monitoring initiative for the Kafue River because of the value of the river to the local community, and the need to create a community of citizen scientists from local young people to protect the river’s future. After researching FreshWater Watch and seeing how organised it was, as well as how much it would boost the outcomes of our project, we couldn’t resist signing up.

Please tell us more about your group

The WECSZ runs over 1,400 Conservation Clubs in Schools, called the Chongololo and Chipembele Conservation Clubs of Zambia (CCCCZ) and this was an opportunity to introduce the citizen science project to young teenagers. Our group is comprised of children and their teachers totalling about 155 children (14-18 years) and five teachers. We monitor the Kafue River and its tributaries on the lower sub-catchment, which includes the Itezhi-Tezhi and Namwala rivers. The water quality data is collected twice per month.

Citizen Scientists at Itezhi-tezhi Lake, Lower Kafue River. Photo credit: Enock Mwangilwa

What has your project achieved, to date?

  • We have mapped the initial project area, the Lower Kafue Sub-Catchment, and generated a further map for the expansion site (the Upper Kafue Sub-Catchment).
  • The MENDAPO project has introduced more than 200 children to water quality monitoring using the FreshWater Watch kit and collected over 90 water quality data sets from 2019 to February 2022.
  • 87 school-age children and young people have been trained as citizen scientists to collect water quality data in the Lower and Upper Kafue-Sub Catchment from 9 districts (1 school per district).
  • The groups in the Lower Kafue area continue to collect data, while the Upper Kafue area have paused while we determine the best kits to use here that take into account the presence of mining activity in the area.
  • One report was published in March 2020, before testing became inconsistent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizen scientists resumed data collection when it was safe to do so, and all data is stored on the FreshWater Watch server to be published in future.
  • This report was presented to the Zambia Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA), along with a letter opening a lobby and advocacy opportunity for the MENDAPO team to discuss the up-scaling of the project to the Upper Kafue Sub-Catchment with guidance from WARMA.
  • Earthwatch Europe provided 10 water quality data collection kits. 10 smart phones with solar chargers to help in the use of the FreshWater Watch app to submit water quality data collection for analysis were procured with the project fund.
  • Young citizen scientists have implemented 7 community awareness activities in their districts about how to ensure good water quality.
  • We presented the MENDAPO innovation, lessons learnt and the way forward for the project to global citizen science project implementers in an online session titled ‘Power of Data’. This presented a great opportunity for the MENDAPO officers to interact and share their experiences as well as learn from the experiences of other citizen scientists in other countries.

What do you hope your project achieves in the future?

Our goal for the project is to have a wider group of young citizen scientists in schools conducting more consistent water quality monitoring with strong recognition by the water authority and related ministry in Zambia. For this we would need further access to equipment and materials, such as kits, reagents and mobile phones, and accessible platforms. The hope is that decision-makers will listen to the water quality threats made clear by data from citizen scientists.

What have been some of the highlights of your involvement in the FreshWater Watch project?

The key highlights of our involvement in the FreshWater Watch project has been producing the analysis report with great support from Earthwatch, which led to us having a good advocacy session with the water authority in Zambia who also appreciated the report. The other highlights have been the community awareness which the children spearheaded on World Children’s Day in 2021, demonstrating that the young citizen scientists have appreciated the value of water and are ready to encourage community participation in improved water resource management. Co-creating a poster for the Citizen Science Association was equally an amazing highlight that demonstrated the power of citizen science.

You can see a video from our young citizen scientists here, where they talked to their peers in their schools and communities in three districts of Zambia about what water means to them. And you can see our social media awareness campaign here.

What do you enjoy most about your experience?

The team enjoys stepping out of the classrooms and going to water bodies to inspect their health. This interaction with nature builds an appreciation of the value of this importance natural resource: water, the lifeline of living organisms.

 

Water quality monitoring at Itezhi-tezhi Lake, Lower Kafue River. Photo credit: Enock Mwangilwa

 

What area of the experience do you think could be improved?

It would be a great delight if the chemical reagents required for water quality testing were more accessible in Africa. During the project we have often been stuck on progress from our citizen scientists collecting the data because we had limited chemical reagents to continue the data collection.

What personal or professional changes have you made as a result of participating in FreshWater Watch?

The FreshWater Watch project has increased my appreciation of water quality monitoring, especially through the use of citizen science, and the FreshWater Watch app and kit makes this a fun activity. I strongly believe that advocacy work by the affected communities participating in data collection for evidence documentation carries great importance.

Professionally, I have developed a greater sense of awareness when implementing community-based activities so as to capture opportunities for citizen science especially in the water sector. At an institutional level, WECSZ seeks to have water quality as a routine activity that our conservation clubs can engage in using child and youth friendly methods.

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