Mountain communities working with Imperial scientists to monitor water resources


Locals monitoring water resources

A citizen science project in poor mountain regions is helping communities take control of their environmental resources.

The new project, led by Imperial College London and funded by the Ecosystems for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, deepens citizen science  by involving local communities in every step of the project, from data collection to data processing and knowledge generation.

Monitoring [water flows] was an eye opener for me. I am looking at the catchment in a different way now.

– Community leader from Tiquipaya in Bolivia

It is based in four mountain regions across the world where vulnerable and poor communities are reliant on local resources, so-called ‘ecosystem services’, such as water supply from wetland areas, for daily survival.

The project works with local communities in four regions, including the Andes in central Peru, the Ethiopian highlands around Lake Tana, the Central Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and the Kaligandaki watershed in Northern Nepal.

These mountain regions face many environmental threats, ranging from local soil degradation and erosion to changes in rainfall patterns due to global climate change, but there is a lack of detailed knowledge of the exact changes taking place.

Monitoring water resources

Data collected by the local communities is not only improving knowledge of what environmental impacts are taking place, but also helping local communities to better manage their resources.

The leader of one of the communities in Tiquipaya in Bolivia has recognised the valuable information this has given her: "Monitoring [water flows] was an eye opener for me. I am looking at the catchment in a different way now."

Project lead Dr Wouter Buytaert from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College London and an affiliate of the Grantham Institute said:

“First results from the Andes, where our activities are most advanced, shows that the new information helps local communities to improve their water supply systems, but also helps documenting the functioning of unique and remote ecosystems such as the upper Andean grasslands locally known as páramos.”

Dr Buytaert began working with the mountain communities after locals felt increasing need to manage their ecosystem services. Involving the local communities in the monitoring process has helped to identify local knowledge gaps and priorities for data collection.  It is also practical and convenient as locals regularly  access remote regions that would otherwise be logistically difficult for the researchers to continually monitor. 

Monitoring equipment

Monitoring equipment


Simple technologies, such as rain gauges and other sensors, are connected to the cheap and open source electronics platform Arduino. The combined cost is less than £150 per sensor, compared to over £1000 for a typical commercial system. With some training, this allows locals to accurately collect all of the required data.  Measurements taken focus on the water cycle, including rainfall levels, water quality and soil erosion.

The data collected is combined with existing data, including satellite imagery and measurements from governmental monitoring networks. Using information technology, like cloud computing, the data is analysed to generate results relevant to local concerns, such as the extent of soil erosion or the change in rainfall patterns. The information is fed back to the local community and made available on a website for decision makers, including local government officials.

It is also hoped that the project can help to foster better links between the communities and external decision makers.

Dr Buytaert and his team reflected on the opportunities and challenges of including locals in water resource management research in a new paper in Frontiers in Earth Science. They found that there is great potential for increasing involvement of local communities in collecting data to inform research and decision making around their water resources. They also identified that communication, both with the scientific community and the locals involved in the project is key to ensuring citizen science projects are successful.

Reference: W. Buytaert et al. 'Citizen science in hydrology and water resources: opportunities for knowledge generation, ecosystem service management, and sustainable development.' Frontiers in Earth Science 2014 DOI: 10.3389/feart.2014.00026


Emma Critchley

Emma Critchley
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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