Partnership for Strengthening Citizen-based Water Quality Management in SA

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Citizen-based Water Quality Management in SA
Citizen-based Water Quality Management in SA

It is often times said that water is life. One old Xhosa woman once said ukuba asiwaxabisanga amanzi sichitha ubomi bethu. Indeed, if we mess with water we mess with our own lives. As one of most precious natural resources available to humankind, water is central to human life. Thus, its conservation and management cannot be overemphasised.   

It is against that background that Distinguished Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka, a South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Global Change and Social Learning Skills is working closely with the Water Research Commission (WRC) and leading citizen science partners such as Dusi uMngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), GroundTruth, iWater, and Creating Sustainable Value (CSV), to undertake a national review of Citizen Based Water Quality Monitoring (CBWQM) projects in South Africa.

Prof Lotz-Sisitka states “The Integrated Water Quality Management (IWQM) policy of 2017 positions adaptive co-management as a significant policy and process framework for integrated water quality management in South Africa”. It defines this within an “intergovernmental, adaptive and systems-based approach in partnership with the private sector and civil society”. However, to make sense of this in relation to the contribution of CBWQM, there is need to not only think about CBWQM in the context of the evolution of integrated water quality management approaches, of which the adaptive, systems based approach is the most recent advancement. Rather, “there is also need to think this into the wider societal context of democracy building”, said Lotz-Sisitka. This is in the context of South African water legislation favouring a deliberative, engaged democracy model in which representatives of the state engage with civil society in deliberative, co-engaged ways to realise the intentions of the policy in practice.

The project involves providing an initial scoping and review of existing CBWQM initiatives in South Africa, with the aim of identifying best practices that can be used to boost the capacity of existing and new initiatives in order to contribute to national and international policy obligations. While the Department of Water and Sanitation's Integrated Water Quality Management (IWQM) Policy (2017), Strategy (2017) and Implementation Plan (2017) describe an integrated, inclusive and adaptive approach to IWQM,  “the role of citizen-based water quality management, while included in the policy, remains under-elaborated. There is need to understand the current and potential role of this dimension of the policy”, observed Lotz-Sisitka.  

In South Africa where many communities are dependent on good quality freshwater and where freshwater is increasingly scarce, this activity is extremely necessary. The project recognises that active citizen participation in water affairs is critical to sustainable development, yet these groups receive little sustainable support for their efforts.  The project builds on the practice of a number of projects such as Adopt a River, the Mpophomeni Enviro Champs, Wild Wayz Water Care in Umbogintwini, the Water Hustlers in Nkanini, the Witzenberg Water Savers in Ceres and many others. Individual reviews of some of these programmes suggest that they provide outstanding examples of many of the strategic actions outlined in the IWQM. 

Representatives from citizen based water quality management initiatives were concerned about how to amplify and strengthen their practice, and in 2017 they convened a number of meetings to explore:

  • how best to align these initiatives with national and international plans and goals,
  • how to take these initiatives to scale and
  • how to create sustainable funding or business models for this kind of work.

At one such meeting, it was agreed that the individual projects did not have the institutional mandate nor the resources to develop a national ‘scaling’ initiative. It was thus proposed that a submission be made to the Water Research Commission to support a joint research initiative that would inform the alignment, scaling and sustainable funding of CBWQM, and also to address the WRC mandate to lead the development of a programme to create and support a national citizen-based monitoring programme. This research project is the outcome of this consultation and scoping process. The project is led by DUCT, with the Chair providing research-based support to the CBWQM partners who wished to amplify and strengthen their work across individual projects.

The project will adopt an action orientated research process to enhance the scaling of CBWQM. This research approach uses participatory evaluation of existing initiatives to stimulate social learning processes focused on the identification of underlying mechanisms that currently enable or hinder scaling across different dimensions. These dimensions include: geographic coverage; depth of coverage (numbers involved); diversity of activities; range of stakeholders; and the application of innovation. Local and international experience will inform this research through links to current international scaling research initiatives.

In working to advance this initiative, Professor Lotz-Sisitka, Priya Vallabh and Morakane Madiba (two PhDs studying citizen science practice), together with partners DUCT and CSV, recently attended a CBWQM review meeting at the WRC in Pretoria. During the meeting, WRC reference group members supported the direction of the project, and encouraged the research team to extend the efforts being made in the project. The next activity in the project involves an in-depth policy review and a consultative workshop with CBWQM projects which will be held in November 2019.

In her remarks, the Chair observed that the project is in the process of developing a useful framework that identifies different expansive learning scaling pathways for citizen engagement in water quality management, which will require support from a wide range of organisations, including close collaboration with government.  “The project builds on a growing body of citizen science and social learning research being developed in the Chair’s programmes”, said Lotz-Sisitka.

Source:  ELRC, Prof Heila Lotz-Sisitka

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