The term “hack-a-thon” typically conjures up an image of “techies” in Silicon Valley huddled around myriad devices as they develop and test new software in the hopes of making it big. Imagine applying this concept in a country where only 49% of the people have access to the internet (compared to 88% in the U.S.).
In January 2017, USAID Nepal’s water project, known locally as Paani, brought together over 150 change agents and students to a hack-a-thon hosted by Nepal’s Mid-Western University. Members of local water user associations, students and faculty together developed four data collection tools around priority water issues or worked on user-friendly interfaces to analyze the data.
After two days of practice conducting interviews using survey tools installed on smart phones, 65 of the participants travelled to the Mahakali River watershed in the most western region of Nepal. More than one thousand surveys were conducted over the next three days.
The hack-a-thon was just one part of Paani’s larger effort to create a cadre of “citizen scientists,” which involves training traditionally marginalized members of target communities in collecting primary data on their watersheds.
These data are desperately needed. Although Nepal’s mid- and far western regions boast some of the world’s most impressive freshwater aquatic biodiversity, much remains unknown about the viability and pressures on river ecosystems. This lack of knowledge contributes to weak management, under-protection and poorly designed infrastructure.
With an eye on long-term sustainability, these citizen scientists can serve as new allies for social change, who will help narrow the knowledge gap and create a shared understanding of ecosystem health; the drivers of ecosystem change such as land conversion, overexploitation and invasive species; and the impacts of a changing climate.
Sita Pandey of the Federation of Drinking Water and Sanitation Users Nepal praised Paani’s collaborative approach. “I have been traveling in my watershed for years, but did not understand the interconnectedness of river systems,” she confessed.
But through participation in the collection of biophysical data, Sita learned about the aquatic biodiversity around her community. “I had never heard that aquatic life needed to be protected,” remarked Sita, “and now these issues are actively discussed within communities.”
Paani’s goal is to improve Nepal’s ability to manage water resources for multiple users and uses in three river basins in the western third of the country – the Rapti, Karnali and Mahakali. The project engages diverse stakeholders in target watersheds of each basin to develop watershed health reports and profiles with specific information about the ecosystem, threats and drivers of change, and opportunities for conserving freshwater biodiversity.
Preparation of these reports requires review of secondary data and collection of primary data through biophysical surveys, household surveys, key informant interviews and focus group discussions. Interventions are then prioritized based on what communities themselves identify as most important for building their resilience to the impacts of climate change.
As Paani concludes its first year of implementation, it has completed watershed profiling in five watersheds. To date, nearly 240 men and women citizen scientists from all castes and ethnicities in the country’s mid and far western regions have been trained in data collection methods, building a wealth of data on their watershed.
Through this participatory approach, Paani’s citizen scientists and other partners have gained skill and confidence in the use of apps and other tools for biophysical measurement and social surveys. More importantly, they are beginning to understand the value of this information and to speak out more strongly in public fora. So far, the process resulted in a growing sense of ownership and confidence on the part of communities as they engage with each other and with traditionally more powerful actors. In turn, officials have begun recognizing the value of local knowledge and participation.
The power of this approach helps manage conflict, building consensus among diverse parties involved in watershed health. Active citizen engagement on environmental issues is essential for biodiversity conservation, and crucial for Nepal, as it makes steady progress toward a more representative democracy.
Climatelinks is a global knowledge portal for USAID staff, implementing partners, and the broader community working at the intersection of climate change and international development. The portal curates and archives technical guidance and knowledge related to USAID’s work to help countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.