Knowledge is Power: Engaging Citizen Scientists to Improve the Health of Water in Nepal
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.
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.
Christel Milazzo has been the senior project manager for the USAID Water Program in Nepal since 2016 and served as interim communications specialist in 2017. In this role, she drafted stories on topics such as building local capacity through "Citizen Scientists" and organizing a large River Summit, which brought together researchers, engineers, scientists, academics, government officials, development partners, and students to explore how to strengthen the legal frameworks to conserve and manage river health. Christel is based in Bethesda, MD with implementing partner DAI.