Empowering communities through the Mini Stream Assessment Scoring System (miniSASS)
Submitted by: Bukelwa Nzimande, Monday, March 14, 2016
The Mini Stream Assessment Scoring System (miniSASS), a simple biomonitoring tool for measuring river health is empowering communities by allowing ordinary citizens to monitor the health of their local rivers, thereby contributing towards local water quality data and the conservation of their water resources.
Development of the miniSASS
Modelled on the South African Scoring System version 5 (SASS5) technique, the miniSASS is a simplified version of the biomonitoring tool that uses macroinvertebrates as indicators of “river health”. Macroinvertebrates are small organisms without a backbone and are visible to the naked eye. Their presence and/or absence indicates the health status of the assessed river. “miniSASS was simplified with the aim of encouraging ordinary citizens such as schools and communities, without prior scientific background or knowledge, to assess the health status of their rivers and take action against rivers showing poor health,” explains Ntswaki Ditlhale, a Junior Scientist from GroundTruth, a consulting company focusing on environmental issues surrounding water resources. The simplification of the tool is based on the reduced number of macroinvertebrates groups, where SASS5 contains over 90 different families of macroinvertebrates, miniSASS contains only 13 groups, allowing for simpler identification and understanding. “Despite this simplification, the miniSASS retains its scientific integrity and thus produces results comparable to the full SASS5 technique,” further explains Ditlhale.
Macroinvertebrates as indicators
The miniSASS relies on the use of macroinvertebrates as bio-indicators as they are highly sensitive to pollution, which reduces oxygen levels in the water, creating an unfavourable environment for these organisms to survive and thrive. “Macroinvertebrates are always found in river water and their presence and/or absence flags the presence of pollutants, with some being more sensitive than others and therefore allowing for the rating of the river using the miniSASS Index,” explains Ditlhale. Different macroinvertebrates have different sensitivities to various water quality conditions and the most sensitive organisms cannot survive in a polluted river system with poor water quality. “Macroinvertebrates are also visible to the eyes and are therefore easily identifiable making it easier for the participation of communities of different education backgrounds to take positive action in preserving freshwater sources.” Additionally, their relatively sedentary nature potentially allows for the detection of the point source of pollution.
Flagging tool for river health
The tool provides users with a probable status of a river system’s quality and health which indicates whether the river has the ability to support healthy ecosystems and fulfil its ecosystem functions and uses. “The tool however does not provide conclusive results on the type of pollutants or the microbiological or chemical profile, and can also not be used to determine the assessed water’s suitability for drinking,” adds Ditlhale.
Conducting a miniSASS Test
Due to the simplicity of the miniSASS, anyone can conduct a test on a freshwater stream or river using a purchased kit or an easy to assemble DIY kit. The kit is then used to collect a sample from the mud or sand, vegetation and rock habitat at the river. Thereafter the collected sample is analysed using the miniSASS identification guide to identify the collected organisms. Organisms are then allocated a score which is used to determine the miniSASS Index. Various documents with the detailed method, keys and scoring sheet can be downloaded from the miniSASS website. A video demonstrating the assessment technique is also available. Both these resources provide users with the correct methods of conducting the assessment as well as sampling tips, river categories and a checklist ensuring that everyone is well equipped.
Sharing river quality data to ensure accessibility
Users are also able to register a river and upload their results to the miniSASS database through the miniSASS website. and mobile application downloadable from the google play app store. “Results which are received from users are first verified before being uploaded based on a number of criteria and standards such as verifying river names and river category based on the classification of the assessed river,” explains Ditlhale.
Engaging communities and improving governance
One of the most notable developments of the miniSASS has been the interest shown by ordinary citizens in participating in the monitoring, management and conservation of water resources within their communities. “Communities have received miniSASS with great interest as some are fascinated by knowing how to detect water quality while others have identified pollution issues and as a result have shown interest in participating in monitoring and maintenance of river health,” added Ditlhale.
Conducting miniSASS tests provides communities with the opportunity to be actively involved in efforts to monitor and improve the quality of their local rivers. The miniSASS results have assisted in building strong relationships between communities and municipalities with citizens providing reports produced from their monitoring processes,” explains Ditlhale. The process has capacitated communities and created a channel of communication based on information they have provided. “This has been seen in a few municipalities where communities have played an active role in addressing water pollution and maintaining river health” adds Ditlhale.
Users of the miniSASS
Ditlhale explains that due to its simplicity, the miniSASS allows anyone at any location to assess the health of their local rivers. “Currently, users of the tool include communities, water management groups, NGOs, consulting companies, government organisations and private companies and mostly schools and universities due to the value added by the learning experience the testing process entails. It is also globally applied in research and education and has been well accepted and used by international bodies in countries such as India, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Kenya and Australia.”
To raise awareness about the role of the miniSASS in water resource conservation and to promote community participation, Ditlhale explains that GroundTruth together with its partners the Water Research Commission and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, distribute miniSASS pamphlets, produce tutorial videos, run campaigns, and conduct workshops and training. One of the upcoming campaigns is the miniSASS water is life challenge campaign targeted at schools, which will be running during National Water Week from 14-22 March 2016. More information and downloadable miniSASS resources can be accessed on the miniSASS website.
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