A deluge of activist citizen scientists is heading for the water.
They are participating in a water monitoring and testing week from 17 to 24 September. The campaign is centred on World Water Monitoring Day on 18 September — focusing on the testing of tap water, rivers, reservoirs and dams — and World Rivers Day on 24 September.
During last year’s campaign, 80 volunteers countrywide participated in WaterCAN’s water testing week. This year, more than 1,100 water testing kits have been provided to more than 600 citizen scientists in all nine provinces, from Kuruman and Port Nolloth, to George, Barrydale, Jeffrey’s Bay, Makhanda, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Tzaneen, Clarens, Himeville and many small places in between.
Despite the growing interest in our work, we still get asked two questions: “Why bother testing when we know our water is dirty?” and “Why must we do the government’s work when we pay our taxes?”
These questions reflect a sense of a lack of agency and a feeling of powerlessness among ordinary people caused by an uncaring, corrupt and failing government.
In a 2014 article on the Bolivian water struggle, authors Alexander Dwinell and Marcela Olivera discussed how the Bolivian government, under the guise of a “public rights” framework, managed to remove power from the people and make people dependent on the government, while the state retained all control and decision-making powers. South Africans face a similar kind of dependence, one they need to challenge and break out of.
An activist citizen science approach can be a valuable tool to achieve this in relation to water. The term, developed in my PhD thesis, has three core characteristics: building and challenging knowledge production, network and social movement building, and shifting power relations. Activist citizen science is an activist approach that uses science as a tool, with the intention of shifting power relations through building knowledge and movements.
An empowered civil society that uses networks to build a movement can take back basic decision-making and power from the government. An example would be to insist that the government tests water resources and makes the tests publicly available: we have a right to know that the water we drink is safe. It could also involve monitoring the local government budget and using social media to expose leaks and sewage spills.
Our water testing campaign is only the first step in our fight for equal access to safe, clean drinking water. Activism often begins with learning. Water testing builds knowledge and allows activists to understand and reflect on their lived experiences. At the same time, it helps them to understand the science and politics of water as well as the environment. Education can take many forms, including activities such as water testing, storytelling, art, workshops, writing and site visits.
We are painfully aware that many of South Africa’s rivers and streams are polluted with sewage and industrial, pharmaceutical and agricultural waste and that at least 60% of wastewater systems are in a poor to critical condition. In some towns — like Makhanda, Hammanskraal and more recently, Giyani, where scientists found arsenic in drinking water — residents can’t drink the tap water. Unfortunately, the number of towns and communities with unsafe water is on the increase.
We also know all too well that it will take time to improve the quality of our water. But, with consistent pressure from groups and activists, we can turn the tide. Not taking action is not an option.
A collective voice cannot be ignored
Through activist citizen science, we are empowering activists and communities with scientific knowledge through practical activities. They can confidently use this knowledge in a way that is not only individually empowering but that collectively can be used to challenge power relations.
The Dipaleseng Ratepayers Association in Mpumalanga is an example of how communities can use this kind of approach. In February, the results from the water testing kits supplied by WaterCAN suggested that the water was unfit for human consumption. The ratepayers association submitted the results to the municipal manager and has since been engaging with the municipality.
In KwaZulu-Natal, we are working alongside citizens to hold the state responsible for the high levels of pollution in the Umbilo River that falls under the eThekwini metro. The Umbilo River project used the WaterCAN citizen science test kits alongside samples collected for detailed laboratory tests to apply pressure for action on eThekwini and the Department of Water and Sanitation. Up to now, our letters to the government have been ignored. However, the activist citizen science network in KZN is growing, with interactions among a diverse network, ranging from surfers to traditional health practitioners. A collective voice can’t be ignored.
The aim is to not stop at testing water. Simply testing water does not guarantee change. The knowledge created must be used to build a movement or network to amplify people’s voices. We aim to use the data to create awareness and mobilise and connect individuals and small groups to form a collective voice that has the power to engage with the government and then make a difference.
The government or the companies that pollute our water sources may be able to ignore individuals or small groups. But when people come together in groups or larger organisations, it can amplify the findings of activist citizen science, making it much harder for the government or industry to ignore.
Individuals or small groups can join or align with organisations or community structures that are tackling similar challenges. This will not only provide a sense of, credibility but also illustrate that shared issues are a much bigger societal problem. A collective voice helps to open a path to challenging and shifting power relations.
Shifting power may require various approaches. It may mean facilitating an audience with the government and industry to hear community concerns, or it may mean going to court to achieve change.
The challenge is that building networks and social movements that are enabled to work for change takes time, solidarity, appropriate skills and knowledge, as well as a lot of energy (and resources).
We must start somewhere to hold polluters accountable. Our water is too precious not to act. DM