Citizen science: Building people’s power from below to protect our water

Faced with government collapse, activists look to citizen science as a tool to help protect water resources. Dr Ferrial Adam explains why a network of activist water warriors is needed to help empower communities to put pressure on government for better services. Knowledge is not enough, it’s collective action that is essential.

07/06/2022 11:00:12

Citizen science: Building people's power from below to protect our water 


This piece by Dr Ferrial Adam was originally published in the Daily Maverick.


The lack of service delivery, crumbling infrastructure and defunct municipalities have brought people to despair, as their hope and trust in government fades. Cities, towns and villages have been neglected but at the same time almost R186 billion has disappeared out of the accounts of South African municipalities to irregular expenditure in the last 10 years and only 27 municipalities of the 257 in South Africa have received clean audits.

We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the abyss of hopelessness and to allow this feeling to paralyse us as a society. In the words of the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”. To counter this, we aim to use citizen science as a tool to empower people and build networks to achieve basic rights through participation and conscientisation. And in so doing, contribute to building hope and a thriving society.

Citizen science is the participation of the general public or volunteers in activities to gather and collect information and data over large geographic areas. The early history of science has shown that historically, contributions were made by ordinary people who used science as a way of challenging the prevalent ideologies and cultures of the societies within which they lived. In the nineteenth century, science was institutionalised in a way that divided the scientist from the people. 

The practice of citizen science is not new, rather what is newer is the term “citizen science”. The phrase was first used in the 1990s by Rick Bonney to describe the volunteer birdwatchers who shared their data with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Citizen science activities can also include astronomy, nature conservation, and environmental protection. There are also good examples in other streams of knowledge such as health. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, activists in the Treatment Action Campaign used citizen science to educate people about HIV and AIDS, antiretrovirals and healthy living. In this example, activists used citizen science as an awareness-raising and education tool that was important to counter the dangerous and powerful views from people in high positions of power, such as the HIV denialism.

In the water and environmental sphere, people at the frontline of pollution and environmental damage have found it difficult to challenge people in power as science has been used to counter their arguments and refute their claims. Many of the measures taken to address water challenges are often not easily available for communities, most of whom do not have the funds or knowledge to implement and sustain such measures. These include the use of high-level technical strategies, improving water use efficiency, development of new infrastructure, re-use and recycling, desalination, and the removal of water-hungry alien invasive plants.

It is becoming increasingly important for ordinary people, especially in a country like South Africa, to become more active about water issues. Water is necessary for life and, in a drought-prone country with deep inequalities and failing infrastructure, it is essential that people manage, test and drive corrective actions to protect South Africa’s water resources.

Citizen science that is focused only on collecting data and on the science is not likely to challenge environmental injustice. For example, burst pipes and overflowing manholes could be seen as an infrastructural issue that need technical expertise to fix – but on its own a technical fix could be a short-term solution. A deeper analysis could reveal a failing local government due to corruption and maladministration that neglects the provision of basic services to communities. This, then, would require more than a technical fix – it requires a political approach as well.

WaterCAN, an initiative of OUTA, is using citizen science to build activism in water. What we are witnessing is that while people on the ground have lost faith in government bodies and institutions, there is an increase in people and organisations at a local level who are working to create change from below. As such, people and communities are using citizen science to find their own new and innovative ways to manage water resources. These responses can take many forms such as simple technology solutions, indigenous knowledge, skills sharing, and water use efficiency. For example, WaterCAN is embarking on a campaign to get people to test the quality of their drinking water from June 2022, share the data and challenge their municipalities if the results are of concern. So, we don’t just criticise the state and point out the failings of the public sector, but also build active citizens to create the change we want to see. We cannot wait for government alone to build a better country – the responsibility must lie with all of us.

A citizen science approach that builds activism can be the nexus that brings together the science, the lived experiences of activists and communities and an understanding of the power relations and politics at play. Some researchers have found that the integration of knowledge between science experts and people’s lived experience can build an alternative expertise with the potential to increase levels of trust and interventions between communities and industries. 

It is understood that knowledge in itself does not lead to empowerment. The power held by government and the private sector could be strong enough to ignore activists, even if they have the knowledge to back up their claims. That is why the building of collective voice and action, as carried out by social movements and civil society networks – through an activist citizen science approach – is a way for activists to build a counter knowledge (and thereby counter power) to government and the private sector. This kind of citizen science can provide a way to build a movement of water warriors, who get involved in local or regional water justice issues and understand the link between water and broader issues of social justice. 

Learning the basic science does not necessarily change the system of water management but it is increasingly being called on to provide consensus in political disputes and science experts are used to settle political and social disputes such as those over polluted water or a lack of water supply. The politics is influenced by the science and at the same time the science is influenced by the politics. 

We look forward to building a citizen science network in South Africa that can influence decisions on the management of our water resources.


The author

Dr Ferrial Adam has a long history of advancing environmental justice and human rights issues and has worked for various organisations, including Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace Africa. She has served as the chairperson on the board of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). Dr Adam has completed her PhD on Citizen Science and Environmental Justice in SA’s Water Sector. She is manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of OUTA. 

More information on WaterCAN is here.