Citizen Science: By The People, For the people.

History is the proof that we humans are what we are because of the rivers. From one of the oldest ancient civilization known to us, the Mesopotamia based between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, to the Ancient Egyptian civilization based around the river Nile, humans have grown and evolved around the rivers. This pattern has continued into the modern world with most major cities set around the rivers, lakes or the ocean.

One of the most important gifts given to us by nature is freshwater. The water we use every day and the water that makes us is all fresh water.

Earth has plenty of water, almost 70 percent of the total surface but as you might know only 2.5 percent of this water is present as fresh, non-saline water, most of which is trapped as glaciers and groundwater. Which means only close 0.007% of fresh wateris freely available for the consumption and use for close to 7.8 billion humans.

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Where is Earth’s water. An image depicting water available to us.  (Source)

These figures are important because out of the percentage of water available to us, a lot of it is being polluted and some of it is so polluted that water cannot be used for any practical purposes.

And it’s not only our rivers, 80% of all the Ocean pollutants originate from the in-land sources.

The major sources of pollution include discharge of waste water into the rivers and lakes from factories and tanneries, sewage, and organic or inorganic solid wastes. The pollution is not only killing the aquatic life but it is also a threat to the locals’ health and livelihood. According to the WHO, Over one billion people around the globe lack access to safe water sources.

Who is to be blamed for these dire circumstances we are in? And who is going to solve these problems?

We are.

Even though the government and the research institutes are doing their best in planning out various policies and programs, not only for the rivers but also for other environmental and social issues, it’s not enough, or rather, it’s incomplete. For any plan to be efficient the locals have to work hand-in-hand with the policy makers.

This is where the idea of Citizen Science comes in.

Citizen science is any scientific research which is conducted, in part or completely, by the citizens or the amateur scientists.

The need of Citizen Science for the research and restoration of the river is being discussed on the ongoing six-part webinar series “Citizen Science and Water challenges” which is delivered by University of Warwick, Thames 21 and ALP Synergy Ltd in partnership with Earth5R

In the very enlightening second part of the series, “The value of Citizen Science in Research” the importance of involvement of the community in research and for plan development was discussed. This webinar is a collaboration brought together by the India-UK Water Centre (IUKWC)

This second webinar in a series of six goes into more detail about how citizen science is currently used in research and how its use could be increased.

By the people, For the people

There is a great need for Citizen Science as a large number of volunteers will help the researchers and policy makers to collect a larger data over a wider range which would not be possible with a small team of experts. The citizens also help the researchers by filling in the gap within the collected data as well as by reporting the situation before, during and after the project is being run.

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Understanding the significance and impact of citizen science in sustainability development

As explained in an example shared on the webinar by Dr. Nathalie Gilbert – the evidence programme manager working with Thames21 – about the citizen science methodology program Outfall Safari’in the UK. ‘Outfall Safari’ involves the detection, evaluation and reporting of any outfall draining into the rivers. An app is developed for the citizen volunteers to use where they can upload the collected data for a more complete analysis of the polluting sources.

Such programs make it easier and quicker for the policy and law makers to analyse and curb the pollution at its source. Not only that, the factories and industries disposing the wastes into the river are also always attentive to make sure their waste management is at par with what is expected of them by the government.

The Citizens Shape the Plan

A larger database is needed for designing a better and more effective solution. With Citizen Science, the funding spent in collecting the data is vastly reduced and these funds could instead be directed to help improve the conditions of the community.

But, the citizens are not needed only to collect the data but their role in developing schemes and projects runs much deeper than that.

The locals and volunteers act as the base of the solution by providing the necessary data to the researchers and institute who work as service or solution providers by analysing the data and designing a plan which could be implemented.

The success and extend effectiveness of any plan could only be determined after putting it into practise and as the citizens use these solutions and tools, they explore the strengths and weaknesses of the solution provided.

This information helps develop more inclusive and more effective solutions for the future.

When a sustainable, scalable plan which could be translated to other regions or countries is developed, this solution could then be used by the policy makers to act and set laws and regulations in motion to solve the problem on a greater scale.

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The responsibility and action taken up by each stakeholder plays a key role in success of sustainability goals

This need of Citizens in Research was explained on the webinar by Dr. Sarah Cook of the University of Warwick who is involved with a project called ‘Pathways’. It is a collaborative project by the University of Warwick and Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay) (IIT-B) where the researchers are trying the understand the flow and movement of the pollutants to monitor the water quality.

This twin investigation between the UK and India would be carried out with the citizens by developing a Tool-kit which would be used by the Citizens to assess the flow and path of the selective pollutants through a waterbody.

The data hence generated will not only help fix the problem more effectively but it will also help in developing a Tool-kit which could be used in different regions and by different communities as their need be.

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Citizen science plays a huge role to solve bigger environmental problems like river pollution

Why is Your involvement Important?

The solution to any problem lies in the root of the problem, and who knows the problem better than the people who are experiencing it first-hand? As many volunteers are the locals, there is an added advantage of learning about the problem from their experiences and habits as well as educating them on how the problem could be solved, which will not only make it easier to tackle the problem at hand but also lead to a behavioural change within the community.

For instance, when we at Earth5R took up the Lake Clean-up project at Powai, our main focus besides the clean-up was creating awareness and educating the locals about waste management, waste segregation and helping them become a part of the Circular Economyby inculcating the idea of using the recyclable plastic collected from the lake to make benches and notepads. This greatly helped in the reduction of the solid wastes being dumped into the lake by the locals as well as the visitors as they experience and understand the consequences of their actions. With this, encouraging them to recycle or upcycle the waste materials also stopped a considerable amount of plastic from ending up in the landfills.

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Earth5R is an example that big sustainability goals can be achieved if each individual takes small action. 

Sustainable Solution and Circular economy

Solutions which are sustainably designed will also be carried forward as a legacy in the community. This is to ensure that the plan works efficiently even after the professionals are no longer involved with it.

The idea of sustainability is important because citizens are what makes the community. Through Citizen Science and Sustainable planning, the citizens and hence the community itself become independent.

This is only possible with Circular Economy. An economic system which ensures optimum use of the resources and reduced waste while generating an income.

When the solutions have a revenue generating system it would not only improve the socio-economic status of the locals but also ensure the plan is actively and willingly run by the community.

As was discussed by Saurabh Gupta – the founder of Earth5R – on the webinar, at Earth5R, our focus has always been into developing a Sustainable system with circular economy.

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Earth5R shows how volunteer participation and interaction with communities has led to successful projects.

For instance, when the citizens and the Earth5R team trained the slum dwellers to make paper bag from newspapers, the waste paper generated by society was utilized to make products by upcycling it. These products were then put back into the circulation in the society to generate a revenue. This ensures that the waste like the newspapers are Reduced by being Reused.

Coming together for the Future

In this dynamic world we are getting closer to the community and world as whole and this is a great time to stand up and demand a solution and be part of the solution to ensure development of an effective, sustainable plan to solve the problem from its root.

The coming years is going to be a surge in Citizen Science as the policies will be more community driven as the researchers focus on the root of the problem which starts with all of us. The people.

Even though there is a common stream of thought that changes could only be brought about by people in the position of power, this can’t be any further from the truth. No plan designed for a society succeeds without the society playing an active role. The problems which are created by a community, be it pollution, unstable ecosystem, or garbage mismanagement, could all be solved by us as a community.

Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.

Written by Riya Dani


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