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South African Groundwater Challenge Reveals the Energy of Citizen Science

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About 30% of the water on the planet is below the bottom, out of sight and never simply accessed. Little is understood about this “invisible” groundwater. That is particularly so in distant areas, such because the a part of South Africa’s Limpopo province the place a analysis mission referred to as Diamonds on the Soles of their Ft is happening.

Lecturers and residents are working collectively in two Limpopo villages, Ga-Komape and Ga-Manamela, to seek out out extra concerning the areas’ groundwater sources. That is vital knowledge: 74% of individuals in rural areas like these rely on groundwater for his or her crops and home water provide. Folks use this water however there’s little or no data about how a lot there may be, the way it recharges, whether or not it’s clear and so forth.

Over the previous three years, residents from the villages have been educated to seize groundwater knowledge. They use a easy dip meter, document rainfall ranges from rain gauges and take photographs of water flows in rivers. This knowledge is captured on sensible telephones and relayed to an internet site the place it’s obtainable for presidency, researchers and planners who can use this to higher perceive what’s going on below the bottom — in spite of everything, you’ll be able to’t handle what you’ll be able to’t measure.

That is what’s generally known as citizen science. “Strange” residents are now not passive and disengaged however are actively engaged with scientists. The mission is remodeling volunteers in these distant rural areas from being passive and never partaking with science to turning into scientists themselves. The info being collected is verified, validated and made seen. It’s taking science out of the laboratory and into the sphere, making science accessible to society in order that they’re a part of the answer and never a part of the issue.

The tendency in citizen science tasks is to focus solely on the worth of exhausting knowledge. Our mission is totally different: we’re in fact within the knowledge, however are additionally involved with transformation and empowering folks. The purpose of this work is to attain a extra simply society by the democratisation of data and improved water literacy. The mission’s identify, “Diamonds on the soles of their ft” stems from the truth that farmers have an actual treasure that they share with us as researchers – and that’s of actual worth.

The residents are actually inquisitive about water. They’ve a way of belonging to a geographical space past their properties, being half now of a wider mission that extends from one aspect of the Hout River Catchment to the opposite. Their work has garnered worldwide recognition, too. On the Falling Partitions Summit, a part of Berlin Science Week 2021 in early November, Diamonds on the Soles of their Ft was chosen as one in every of 20 winners from 189 tasks in 80 international locations throughout the globe.


The Falling Partitions Summit asks scientists to indicate what partitions have been damaged down between science and society. In our mission’s case, there have been a number of partitions.

The mission began with funds from the Danish Worldwide Improvement Company (DANIDA) by the College of Copenhagen three years in the past. We selected Limpopo as a result of it’s a typical rural space the place individuals are extraordinarily depending on floor water and in addition as a result of it’s one in every of South Africa’s poorest provinces.

After we began, there merely wasn’t very a lot knowledge about water in distant rural wells as a result of it is vitally troublesome to entry these distant rural wells. Limpopo is a sprawling province; there are large distances between villages and the roads are usually poor.

There was additionally an insidious historic divide between business farmers and small scale farmers. Business farmers know rather a lot about water of their boreholes however the knowledge they’ve gathered over the previous a long time has not been shared. Now, farmers see that there’s a mission caring about water for the long run they usually have proven their curiosity and willingness to be a part of this, and to share their knowledge.

Transcending disciplines

Then there was the wall that scientists typically put up: between the humanities and sciences corresponding to hydrology, engineering, geology and so forth. A number of the work wanted to gather knowledge is only scientific, in fact – however a few of it’s about empowering communities.

As an anthropologist, working with water and society, I’m clear that the safety and care of pure sources cannot occur except communities who’re closest to that useful resource are concerned. This implies making use of deeply participatory, ethnographic strategies to solicit the views and data of individuals dwelling near the wells.

There’s a wealth of knowledge that’s not being tapped into. When searching for knowledge on groundwater, the voice of hydrologists, geologists and different consultants resonates, relatively than the voice of group members who are sometimes marginalised as a result of they do not have the proper jargon, or scientific phrases to speak about water.

My doctoral thesis and associated analysis was on disgrace and belief: disgrace is prevalent when folks really feel they’re ignored and made to really feel “silly” simply because they do not have the levels or badges that give them recognition. The strategy for this mission is an “ethics of care”. It actually means acknowledging individuals who have wealthy indigenous data and expertise and are themselves typically consultants in relation to water. Anthropologists have labored carefully with communities and have instruments and strategies that are a part of the science equipment. With this mixture of approaches and science, our multi-disciplinary workforce has been capable of break down some partitions.