Taking people along, to conserve freshwater ecosystems

Pashan lake in Pune (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Pashan lake in Pune (Image Source: India Water Portal)
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Freshwater, a rare resource

Water on earth exists in two forms, freshwater and salt water. Less than 3 percent of the water found on earth is freshwater, and the remaining 97 percent is salt water found in the oceans. Freshwater is rare and extremely important for survival of humans and a range of animals inhabiting the waters.

Earth's water

Most of the freshwater is not easily accessible with 69 percent being available in frozen form as ice in glaciers and polar ice caps and 30 percent being present under the surface in the form of groundwater. Only about 1 percent of earth’s freshwater is readily available for human use and found in surface water sources such as rivers, lakes, ponds and streams.

Freshwater exists in India in the form of surface water sources such as wetlands, lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, springs, cave waters, floodplains, bogs, marshes, swamps and groundwater.

Freshwater ecosystems are extremely biodiverse

Freshwater ecosystems are not mere sources of water, they are treasure troves of biodiversity! A wide range of plants, animals and microbes inhabit the surface, middle and bottom layers of freshwater bodies as well as at the boundaries where water and land meet, and play an important role in maintaining the health of freshwater ecosystems.

These include small/ microscopic ones such as phytoplankton and zooplankton, which form the base of the aquatic food chain and many freshwater invertebrates such as worms and insects and vertebrates such as frogs and fish. Many animals and birds such as kingfishers and ducks live in or near the freshwater ecosystems as well.

Rivers and streams, lotic, or flowing freshwater bodies/ecosystems begin at a source such as the spring, lake, or snowmelt—and travel to the sea or another river. The water at the source of the rivers or streams  is clear and has a higher oxygen content than at the mouth. The middle of a river or stream is more biodiverse, while the water near the mouth can get murky with sediment that decreases the amount of light and the diversity of the ecosystem.

Animals live in different parts of the rivers or streams based on the flow and availability of food and sunlight and usually have flattened bodies that prevents them from being swept away by the force of the flowing waters. Fallen leaves, insects, and other detritus are important food sources in rivers and streams. There are no sharp boundaries between water and land in streams and rivers and the saturated soil zone beyond the banks of a stream or a river is known as the riparian zone, which also has a rich biodiversity.

Lakes, ponds, and reservoirs are lentic or layered systems with still water that has plankton and different kinds of insects. The surface of lakes, ponds or the limnetic zone is exposed to the sunlight and has algae and animal species, big and small that feed on them such as zooplankton, insects and fish. The layer below the surface is relatively warm and penetration of sunlight through the layer depends on the amount of silt suspended in the water. The bottom layer of a lake or pond referred to as the benthic zone has low levels of oxygen and sunlight and is occupied by burrowing worms and snails and anaerobic microorganisms, which can live without oxygen.

The littoral zone or the area near the edge of lakes, ponds and reservoirs is the most biodiverse and has a large ecosystem with organisms that can use both land and water such as dragonflies, frogs, ducks, and turtles. Plants such as rushes, reeds, and cattails also grow at the bottom of the littoral zone.

The Krishna river at Wai (Image Source: India Water Portal)
The Krishna river at Wai (Image Source: India Water Portal)

Freshwater ecosystems are deteriorating fast

Freshwater habitats world over and in India are disappearing at an alarming rate due to pollution and contamination and human interventions leading to flow modifications, loss of connectivity, habitat loss, introduction of invasive species and the impacts of climate change. This has been presenting challenges to availability of water and posing a threat to all organisms- small and large - living in and near the waters and maintaining the health of the water bodies!

The most recent Living Planet Report finds an 84 percent decline in vertebrate species from freshwater bodies. Despite these threats, conservation of freshwater and its biodiversity has been insufficiently prioritised.

Community participation, the key to manage and restore freshwater ecosystems

Local communities have since times immemorial been associated and connected with freshwater resources for their livelihoods, agriculture, fisheries, drinking water and cultural needs and have been involved in their local management and protection. While science can provide systematic ways of measuring the state, impacts and finding solutions to problems faced by freshwater ecosystems, collaboration between scientists and communities is crucial for the conservation and survival of freshwater ecosystems.

The role of community participation was also highlighted in a recent online workshop 'Formulating a shared freshwater conservation vision' organised by The Nature Conservency (TNC), India, Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) and Ooloi labs.

The participation of the general public/ local people in the collection or generation of data, interpretation and dissemination of outcomes for protection and restoration of freshwater bodies is often referred to as Citizen Science informs this paper titled 'Applied citizen science in freshwater research' by Metcalfe, AN et al published in WIREs Water.

Recent technological developments in sensing technology, data processing, visualisation, and communication techniques, are opening up exciting new possibilities for public participation in scientific research. These can not only help in facilitating larger coverage, but also help in generating data, instill a sense of ownership and empowerment among communities, contribute in conservation and protection of freshwater bodies and influence policy level decisionmaking . 

Public/community engagement can be in the form of local people living near freshwater ecosystems, volunteers, collaborators and involve students, women, senior citizens, etc and can include activities such as biodiversity mapping, following migration of species, mapping water bodies, assessing damages caused due to hazards and human interventions, epidemic diseases, groundwater levels in wells, river water levels, rainfall, water quality in streams, rivers, wells, lakes, ponds etc.

How can citizen science help in conserving and management of freshwater ecosystems?

Monitoring health of freshwater ecosystems

Citizen science can provide a great opportunity to engage communities in the long-term monitoring of freshwater resources making the effort sustainable and cost effective. Goyal (2016)  informs that in India, collaborative scientific projects in the mid-1990s started with the idea of People's Biodiversity Register (PBR) that aimed at supporting rural communities and people's understanding of their ecological setting, document local ecological changes, and lead to local resource management.

Following PBR, the Indian government formed 'Biodiversity Management Committees' that created biodiversity registers in consultation with the local people, which led to scientific projects that involved  studying and including local knowledge to enhance official knowledge.  In January 2010, a citizen science project was initiated in Malappuram region of Kerala to study the mammalian diversity of the area with the help of school children.

Similar attempts were also made by institutions like Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), and Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators (SPACE). GPS-based monitoring of the damage caused by June 2013 flash-flood tragedy in Uttarakhand was a classic example of the Citizen Science activity.

Community Led Environment Action Network (CLEAN-India) of Development Alternatives has been engaging schools and students in preparing water quality maps in different parts of India.

Community-based organisations such as Arghyam (Bangalore), Centre for Science & Environment (CSE, Delhi), Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE, Bangalore), UNICEF, and many academic institutions, have also tried implementing water quality monitoring of water bodies through students and local communities.

Another common application of citizen science in freshwaters is to monitor restoration sites in urban areas such as the monitoring of the Pashan lake done by citizens in the city of Pune and organisations such as Jeevitnadi and Biologia LIfe Science LLP that have been using citizen science to monitor the water quality of Mula Mutha river, document biodiversity and prevent encroachment and further deterioration of the river.

Identification of rock pool site through citizen participation by Jeevitnadi (Image Source: Jeevitnadi)
Identification of rock pool sites through citizen participation by Jeevitnadi (Image Source: Jeevitnadi)

Some other examples also include the recent citizen science initiatives developed to assess the water quality in a 100 km long tropical lake-estuarine system (Vembanad Lake) in Kerala;  the monitoring of water quality of lakes in Bengaluru; the effort made at rejuvenation of the Lake Powai in Mumbai; recording animal and insect species found around Dhamapur lake in Maharashtra, the use of digital technology to monitor freshwater biodiversity of the river Ganga and the recent development of a novel cloud based dashboard called "Cyanokhoj" in Google Earth Engine, using satellite data to monitor harmful algal blooms (HABs) in water bodies that can be used by citizens to track algal blooms across freshwater ecosystems.


Citizen science can provide a cost-effective solution for exploring research questions on large spatial and temporal scales. Studying urban water bodies especially can greatly benefit from citizen science initiatives. Citizen scientists and environmental groups can help generate both quantitative and qualitative data on freshwater ecosystems and help inform on the state of water bodies at the policy level and act to bring about changes in the state of freshwater ecosystems.


Citizen science can also serve as a powerful tool for improving awareness and educating all stakeholders and help in better communication and relationship building between stakeholders such as scientists, environmentalists, communities and policymakers through a common language.


However, while involving citizens, a number of ethical concerns such as transparency in decision making, open communication with all participants, and proactive considerations of privacy are important. Ensuring good communication, quality of data and information generated, and making the process sustainable rather than short term are challenges that need to be overcome while ensuring citizen involvement in conservation and monitoring freshwater bodies.

Involvement of communities in understanding the state of their water bodies can greatly help in influencing decisions made at the policy level and help in the survival of freshwater ecosystems. This can be by bridging the gap between scientific and lay models of knowledge  and making it accessible and understandable to all to help in collaborative management and restoration of freshwater ecosystems .