Citizen Science for improving data for water and sanitation

Young people encouraged to gather ecological data to assess river health using miniSASS, South Africa

Workshop with Human Right 2 Water, Water Research Commission South Africa, UNICEF and WaterShare, 9th December 2021 – recording can be found here

According to National Geographic Citizen science (CS) is described as the “practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge”. Through citizen science, people can share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programmes. CS is seen as a great tool to for public ownership of scientific research programmes in order to address their own challenges without using a lot of resources. It has also been seen as a way to sustain scientific interventions especially for community/public problems. Benefits include the generation of new ideas, leadership, and program coordination. Interested volunteers, emerging scientists, students, and educators may network and promote innovative ideas to advance the understanding of our world.


Recently, public science engagement, has become prominent in science policy programmes. As such, it is worthwhile to:

  1. understand how different communities, regions and countries are undertaking CS programmes as well as the respective outcomes, and
  2. to reflect on some of the best practices for engaging in CS for sustainability of projects, adoption/uptake of outcomes by communities and governments, scaling and sustainable investment and the continuation of scientific learning. 

It is becoming increasingly relevant, given the slow progress being made in the Sustainable Development Goals, that we find new and alternative ways to engage with the community, to find solutions that will be more inclusive of the vulnerable, participative, and finding sustainable solutions that are culturally sensitive, pragmatic and feasible.

The session aimed to reflect on the best practices of CS in the water and sanitation related space. It examined CS models used in various communities and countries (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Hungary) and their respective outcomes. The session also reflected on various CS sustainable models and interventions, especially for ownership of programmes by communities, uptake of solutions and the use of information collected through CS engagement activities. This session is envisaged to be a first in series of webinars tor foster information sharing and networking on CS in the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (Wash) sector.

The workshop invites keynote presentations from expert such as Prof. Vishwas Satgar, WITS University, and Michelle Hiestermann from WRC to provide some background on the potential for citizen science. Ms Hiesterman introduced the miniSASS ecological tool (“mini-Stream Assessment Scoring System”) that is being widely used in a dichotomous key to measure 13 species of freshwater creatures to assess river health. This system is now being adopted by other countries to use in SDG 6.3.2 target assessments for river health.

The following roundtable provided an engaging format to provide expertise and discussion from a range of speakers, facilitated by Amanda Loeffen, from Human Right 2 Water:

  • Ms Henrieta P. Mutsambi, The institute of Water and Sanitation, Zimbabwe,
  • Ilona Milner, UNICEF,
  • Albert Chen, University of Exeter Centre for Water Systems,
  • Dr Ciprian Nanu, The Bucharest Business Development Group (experiences in the Danube),
  • Ms Yuri Ramkissoon, The South African Commission on Human Rights,
  • Dr Jim Taylor, University of KwaZulu Natal, and
  • Dr Christa Thirion, the Department of Water and Sanitation in South Africa.

We heard about digital incentives to encourage young people, online focus groups to lower barriers for communication in the Danube river valley, community-based information gathering to understand water services in marginalised communities, and opportunities to scale up and replicate these tools and methodologies. There is potential for exciting developments in this area of citien science.