FreshWater Watch: Citizen Science At Work

By Benita Chick 20 April, 2017

Can the public help safeguard freshwater? Earthwatch Institute's Chick on how citizens can work with scientists

Given the global freshwater crisis, FreshWater Watch mobilises citizens to research & learn about this resource
The data collected has been used to inform new scientific developments & improve agricultural efficiency in China
It would have taken 11+ years for scientists to conduct the amount of research done by FreshWater Watchers

Citizen science quite simply means the involvement of volunteers in science. It isn’t a new concept, but one that has a proven track record for producing valuable contributions of data. Initiatives range from crowd sourcing activities, in which the time and effort of large numbers of people are used to solve a problem or analyse a large dataset, to small groups of volunteers, who are experts in their own right, collecting and analysing environmental data and sharing their findings.

“Citizen science quite simply means the involvement of volunteers in science”

Citizen scientists can even be compared with Enlightenment thinkers, often described as the founders of science. In the time of the Enlightenment thinkers, the system of ‘formal training’ which now marks a scientist apart from the rest of the population did not exist, and many people ‘dabbled’ in scientific experiments. Thus, like citizen scientists, they were just people with an interest in trying things.
We at Earthwatch believe that decisions regarding the environment and communities should be based on objective science, and that by connecting people with hands-on science opportunities we can empower a worldwide movement of environmental leaders. The aim is to demystify science and make accessible to everyone a global suite of projects that support cost-effective, crucial scientific research and seek solutions to environmental challenges worldwide. This unique approach provides people from all walks of life the opportunity to work alongside leading scientists locally and globally.

Addressing water challenges with FreshWater Watch

The world’s freshwaters are in crisis. Rapid population growth, climate change and economic development are threatening the health of freshwater environments and the diversity of life that depends on them. Two thirds of the world’s population now live in regions of severe water scarcity, a figure that is projected to rise. More than 80% of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or sea without any treatment, leading to widespread pollution. Biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems is declining at a far faster rate than in marine or terrestrial environments due to the loss and degradation of freshwater habitats.
To research freshwater ecosystems at a global scale, FreshWater Watch was set up in 2012 as the first citizen science initiative of its kind. It was initiated under the HSBC Water Programme, a five year global initiative with Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF.
FreshWater Watch aims to involve citizens in a programme to research and learn about freshwater to safeguard the quality and supply of this most precious and vital resource. With support from a strong independent Science Advisory Panel, which includes senior freshwater biologists, FreshWater Watch strives to mobilise the general public to observe and monitor key indicator species in their local areas and input the data into a central database which can be used by academia, research institutes and governmental agencies as well as NGOs.

FreshWater Watch is the first citizen science initiative of its kind…
… it aims to involve citizens in a programme to research & learn about freshwater

Earthwatch fieldwork
FreshWater Watch has been designed so that data gets compared with and checked against experts’ samples of similar areas. An equally important step that FreshWater Watch has taken to ensure reliability is to offer online training and discussion so that FreshWater Watchers can fully develop their skills.

Citizens working with scientists in China

Research conducted by FreshWater Watchers in China, led by scientists at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, South China Agricultural University (SCAU) and the Open University of Hong Kong, has informed a number of new scientific developments about what drives and reduces poor water quality in rivers across Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, China.
Findings include:

  • Poor water quality upstream of Shanghai was a key cause of poor water quality in the city. Investing in better wastewater treatment upstream of large cities like Shanghai would improve urban water quality
  • Within cities, water quality was lower in areas where artificial fertilizers were used and where there were more manmade surfaces, preventing the dilution of nitrates and other pollutants
  • Water quality was higher in urban areas where bank-side trees were present, reducing soil erosion and sediment run-off
  • Urban streams in Hong Kong are highly sensitive to nutrient pollution with algal blooms found more likely to occur in streams with higher phosphate concentrations

Research conducted by FreshWater Watchers in China led by scientists has informed new scientific developments about what drives & reduces poor water quality in rivers

china sampling sites

“The results from FreshWater Watch projects in China indicate that more attention needs to be paid to larger catchment processes, and suggest that the recent policies addressing local urban water treatment processes may not be sufficient to reverse the ongoing loss of freshwater quality. Given the continued expansion of urban areas (100km2 per year in Shanghai over the last decade), this research suggests that catchment conditions are likely to become more critical.”

– Dr Yuchao Zhang, Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences


Results used to improve agricultural efficiency in Guangzhou

FreshWater Watch has conducted extensive work in Guangzhou. From the monthly water quality data collected by citizen scientists from surface water bodies in Guangzhou and Foshan in 2015, temporal variations in water quality were associated, to varying degrees, with the timing of local agricultural activities.
Intensive nitrogen-containing fertilisers are usually applied in spring, whereas phosphorus-based fertilisers are usually applied during the summer or early autumn for newly planted crops.
These results complement work done by our partner researchers from SCAU. Most importantly, it has provided farmers in Guangzhou province with new information to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser that they use whilst increasing crop yields and economic returns.

Results provided farmers with new info to reduce nitrogen, increase crop yields & economic returns

Sharing of results with farmers

Recipe for success: fast-tracking research

FreshWater Watch has achieved some particularly noteworthy environmental and social impacts across the world. Without the commitment of a global team of 8,000 FreshWater Watchers, it would have taken over 11 years for professional scientists to conduct the same amount of research.

Without FreshWater Watchers, it would have taken over 11 years for professional scientists to conduct the same amount of research

Over the past five years, FreshWater Watch has supported:
  • 40 scientists from 30 international research institutions
  • The study of approximately 2,500 ecosystems across 36 cities and 6 continents
  • 10 environmental NGOs
  • 10 rivers and wildlife trusts
  • 10 government agencies
  • More than 20 scientific publications

Moreover, the HSBC Water Programme has become an exemplar of how long term collaborative corporate partnerships can make a significant impact to global sustainability. Training days have equipped staff with awareness of the global water challenge and the skills and understanding to monitor water quality, inspiring them to become stewards of water conservation and environmental sustainability.
On a global scale, the publication of 20 new scientific papers using data collected by HSBC employees has provided important evidence to inform freshwater management and policy.
In 2017, following its success over the initial term, the HSBC Water Programme was extended for a further three years. The extended programme will align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which recognise that water will be one of the most important resources for the world to protect over the next 20 to 30 years.
Taking part in FreshWater Watch is a great way for the public to start having a more positive impact on freshwater resources. Alongside becoming a citizen scientist our participants can help by raising awareness of freshwater issues, learning more and teaching others about biodiversity and voting to influence authorities that hold wider powers to protect freshwater.

Further Reading

  • Water Footprint: The Road Ahead – Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, the creator of the water footprint concept, talks to China Water Risk about hard truths on the challenges ahead over virtual water trade, water scarcity & over-consumption
  • Water Footprint: Why It Matters – Despite growing recognition, water footprint is not without its detractors. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan reviews the concept and gives five reasons why it is still relevant for policy-making in China
  • Fast Fashion: Sucking Aquifers Dry? – Groundwater is over-extracted to grow cotton. As the world’s largest importer of cotton, is it China’s fault? Or is fast fashion to blame? China Water Risk’s Tan explores trends in the growth across major brands, China’s imports & global cotton production
  • Water Flows In China’s Grid – Embedded water is everywhere and that includes electricity. China Water Risk’s Hubert Thieriot on recent findings that show how and where virtual water flows through the grid. Will this change how China’s grid develops?
  • China’s Increasing Use Of Public Environmental Data – China is trying to develop a green credit rating system. Dr Guo Peiyuan, a member of China Financial Association’s Green Finance Expert Committee, expands on publicly available environmental data & how it can help
  • MyH2O – Test Your Water – To improve transparency, Charlene Ren set-up MyH2O, one of China’s first online crowdsourcing networks on drinking water quality. We sat down with Ren to learn more about their testing, interactive mapping platform and what’s next
  • China’s Water Stress Is On The Rise – Water stress across 54% of China worsened in 2001-2010. The World Resources Institute’s Dr Jiao Wang, Dr Lijin Zhong & Charles Iceland deliver the good and the bad news of China’s latest water stress data
  • Wishing For More Data In The 13FYP – More data is needed to reflect the real state of China’s environment. See why CWR’s Feng Hu on why this wish could come true in the 13th Five Year Plan (13FYP). But be warned, this could come with increasing power demand
  • Paris Agreement: Food & Water Still At Risk – Even if all pledges made at COP21 are carried out, global staple crops face increased failures and 1.5 billion more people are to face water stress by 2050. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mark Dwortzan shares more findings & solutions from their report
  • 8 Reasons to Invest in Irrigation in China – To grow 75% of total grains & 90% cash crops, China’s irrigated areas need water equivalent to the Pearl River flow. With an additional 18 million hectares to adopt water-saving tech by 2030, CWR’s Hu says investment in irrigation is worth exploring
Benita Chick
Author: Benita Chick
Benita has specialized skills and experience in diverse fields – environmental education and research, experiential learning outdoors and indoors; project management and partnership collaboration; community and volunteer services. She has a proven track record of building partnership and collaboration with business, government and not-for-profit organizations both locally and internationally. As Regional Manager of Earthwatch, she oversees high-quality delivery of all Earthwatch scientific research and engagement programme activities across the Asia Pacific region and leads on the regional relationship management with corporate partners and scientists. She works closely with senior executives and the wider global team at Earthwatch based across seven offices globally and lead the Earthwatch team, with responsibility for recruiting, retaining and developing talent within the team.
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