Can communities monitor their own water resources?

Water scientists need water data. Many will go to extreme lengths to get it: trekking to remote regions, spending weeks away from home. But what if local people could collect that data for them? Not only would scientists have more time, but they would be able to get long-term data from hitherto hard-to-access places.

It sounds too good to be true, and attempts to introduce participatory monitoring of water resources in the past have had mixed success. After all, making a living in, say, rural Africa can be just as busy as the life scientific. Data collection may be a very low priority for a hard-working farmer. All too often data collected in this way have been inaccurate, incomplete or unreliable.

However, now a new study from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) suggests that community monitoring can work, if the right incentives and procedures are put in place.

Photo: Birhanu Zemadim

Filling the information gap

Information on phenomena such as rainfall, river flow and water levels, collectively referred to as hydrometeorological, is a prerequisite for informed water resources management. However, in many developing countries, an example being Ethiopia, observational networks remain very scarce. Even those in existence are rarely adequately maintained and many have deteriorated over the past decades.

The newly published report, A participatory approach for hydrometeorological monitoring in the Blue Nile River Basin of Ethiopia, describes the development of monitoring networks in three watersheds in the highlands of the Blue Nile River Basin of Ethiopia: Dapo (18 km2), Mizewa (27 km2) and Meja (96 km2).

“The aim was to provide high-quality data for rainwater management strategies to improve the livelihoods of farmers,” says the report’s lead author, Birhanu Zemadim, who is currently based at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) (a CGIAR center), but was at IWMI whilst the research was undertaken. “In all three watersheds, communities participated in the planning, installation and management of the networks. Both local people and national experts provided information on equipment design, methods of installation, and good and potentially poor locations – such as areas prone to flooding – as well as information on the best sites in terms of access and safety.”


It’s all about trust

Local communities were involved in the collection of much of the manual data, obtained daily. More frequent, hourly and even sub-hourly measurements were obtained using automatic instruments. Insights derived from the research were fed back to the communities through ‘learning alliances’ developed in each of the three watersheds.

“This participatory approach proved to be beneficial,” says Zemadim. “It instilled trust and goodwill amongst the communities. In addition, it provided the opportunity for local people to gain insights into the hydrological regime of their locality, which in turn contributed to a better understanding of the likely impacts of different rainwater management strategies. It also contributed to the development of a bond between the researchers and the communities, leading to sharing of knowledge and insights.”


Building a national network

However, it was not all plain sailing. Floods washed away some of the measuring devices. Some were even vandalized. Also, it’s costly: it takes a lot of time and effort to set up the systems. However, the authors agree that the inclusion of local communities and other stakeholders in the data collection efforts has been largely beneficial in terms of the trust garnered within communities. To ensure that the findings are utilized successfully, participation of local communities and a range of stakeholders should continue to be encouraged, say the authors, and similar approaches should be promoted elsewhere in the country.

The monitoring networks are perceived to be of value by local universities and national research institutes. They will hopefully be integrated into the national hydrometric networks in the long-term. The high transaction costs associated with the approach are warranted. Currently, discussions are ongoing with four Ethiopian universities in conjunction with regional agricultural research centers, the Ministry of Water and Energy, and the National Meteorology Agency of Ethiopia to transfer the monitoring networks and maintain community monitoring activities sustainably in the future.

Read the research paper:

Zemadim, B.; McCartney, M.; Langan, S.; Sharma, B. 2013. A participatory approach for hydrometeorological monitoring in the Blue Nile River Basin of Ethiopia. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 32p. (IWMI Research Report 155). doi: 10.5337/2014.200