Science for the city by citizens: Enhancing local water system resilience

    Civil societyScience for the city by citizens: Enhancing local water...
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    Science for the city by citizens: Enhancing local water system resilience

    Skyrocketing hospital bills and rising costs for water, only to be matched by costly repairs of the homes we live in – all because of a taken for-granted attitude to the water around us. Or, for that matter, the lack of it.

    By Zeenat Niazi

    Hospital bills are rising, as gastro-intestinal epidemics, skin allergies, cancers, and chronic impacts on kidneys, bones and teeth become rampant pointing to pollution from water sources. Water bills, too, are rising as bore wells need to be sunk deeper and deeper and often water pipes run dry because treatment plants shut down as these cannot handle the chemical loads in rivers and ground water.  Building repairs are becoming more frequent with foundations settling and walls cracking as the ground subsides, roads need repair more often under stress of alternate high heat and flooding. Drains cannot handle rain showers and street flooding is a regular phenomenon with low-income settlements in a state of permanent water logging. Old deep-rooted trees get uprooted in storms regularly as their roots cannot reach to water anymore, and shallow-rooted trees have no more soil to hold them. There are fewer parks for children to play in as the land is swallowed by parking lots. Fewer trees with shade to sit under in the scorching summer even as soaring temperatures break century-old records. Sparrows have disappeared and so have many other common birds. The city lakes and rivers are foaming with industrial effluents and the stream has become a drain clogged full of sewage and plastic waste.

    This is the story of many a people and cities and towns across India today. Such news raises questions regarding the agency and engagement of common citizens with the governance of our city and its services and infrastructure.

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    Beyond being consumers and users of the urban water system, what is our understanding of the close inter-connections between urban water systems, public health, quality of life in a city and the city economy, now and in the long term? Do we know the quality of the water that we drink? Do we know what are the parameters it is tested for? Do we know the energy and resources needed to bring it our homes when our overheads water tanks overflow?  Do we know where that overflow is going?  Do we know what happens when we allow our sewage pipe from toilets to empty into a storm water drain? Or do we even wonder what could be happening when our streets flood at the first rain? How do we as residents and citizens respond to that shiny new shopping mall on a land that was designated as the urban forest? Do we look out for that hillock and that urban forest and wonder what happened to our water catchment, when the land use changes? How do we view a new residential development on what was a lake some years back? Do we enjoy the water flowing in that nallah or a turn away at the stench of the drain it has become?


    From the individual and local to the more complex neighbourhood, ward and city level, there are layers of engagement that we as citizens have with our water system both blue and green; both tangible and virtual and both visible (on the surface) and invisible (in the ground). We, however, may choose to engage with the governance and management of this system either actively or passively. A vast majority of urban residents probably consider water systems management as something that is the sole responsibility of the municipality, and rarely will one find citizens giving their local government high marks for doing this job well. Municipalities, similarly, lament the lack of citizen awareness but beyond public messages for rainwater harvesting and penalising water misuse, do not seem to create mechanisms for active citizen engagement.

    The key to engagement is information and understanding the water system through education about the system. A search on the internet is quite revealing. There is a lack of updated, dynamic and easy to understand information that would enable citizens to become aware of, and appreciate the water system of the area they live in. While educational information in general about urban water supply, sanitation and sewage management and rainwater harvesting is available in plenty, in various platforms and in different forms at state and city levels; it certainly is not in a form adequate to enable citizen engagement with their water system governance and management at the level of their neighbourhood, ward and city.

    Citizen science

    In the digital age, websites of government and public service agencies (including civil society and academic) become the place to search in. A deeper search reveals that the information one finds on the electronic media is very technical and not relatable to the everyday life experiences of common citizens and is often in English, excluding many citizens. The tone and tenor are prescriptive, designed for, and delivered through one-way communication methods. The space for dialogue, discussion and co-creating knowledge informed by good science is not very active at present. Going beyond media reports of water stress and health impacts, and water management communication campaigns issued in public interest, and painting competitions for primary school students, we need active engagement through co-creating knowledge about our water system by engaged aware informed citizens from all strata of the city.

    Here is where perhaps we could place the role of citizen science, where citizens actively engage in creating new scientific knowledge. Crowd-sourced seasonal data, simple high-school level analysis, maps and traffic lights on key indicators, and interactive digital games could enable school children, young university students, Resident Welfare Associations and concerned citizen clubs to get to know their city and participate in making their cities water secure, resilient and eminently more liveable than today.

    Civic engagement

    Citizen science has often emerged from citizen activism. Campaigns led by concerned citizen groups have sought to bring environmental and social issues related to their cities to the forefront. These localised area- and issue-specific people’s movements use scientific evidence, socio-economic analysis coupled with communication skills and information technology and increasingly Artificial Intelligence to create awareness, educate and enlarge citizen engagement with their local issues. Citizen campaigns not only bring different perspectives that are useful to build a shared understanding; they also bring together people from different strata with a variety of skill sets and expertise. Waste management, water and sanitation management, air quality, traffic management and city forests, rivers and lakes have been some of the main issues raised.

    Recent citizen campaigns in India have included citizen action in Bengaluru regarding disappearing and polluted lakes, the popular ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ movement to build a case for environmental justice and clean-up of the Kodai lake, the ‘Arrey forest movement’ in Mumbai, ‘Save the Aravali’ campaign in Gurugram and NCR, and the two-decade-long ‘Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan’ in Delhi among many others that seek to conserve urban ecosystems and build water system resilience. They use simple and powerful science communication techniques for common citizens. They not only educate, they also advocate for behaviour change, share knowledge and skills and also, where necessary, demand accountability from their governments through available legal channels. These citizen platforms with their websites and citizen volunteers involved in hands-on, ground level work, armed with technical expertise and strengths in social media communication, and now increasingly networked across the country, are a formidable growing movement which state and local governments would do well to support, encourage and collaborate with.

    Scientific temper

    Citizen Science has led to documentation and analysis of evidence of change in urban eco-systems that can be very helpful for designing technical and management solutions by governments, and for measuring the impact of government programmes and policies. Examples from the participatory learning and mapping exercise in Bengaluru, the Vembanad lake assessment in Kerala, the tree census in Delhi, the Great Backyard Bird Count, the ‘One School One Pond’ project in Puducherry and myriad other ‘river and jalyatras’ by citizen groups in different cities are producing rich data and knowledge.

    With this in mind, Development Alternatives has partnered with a host of agencies to develop a science programme for the citizens of Udaipur city in Rajasthan. This involved designing a comprehensive collaborative initiative to bring together students from school and university and educators and citizens to explore the social, technical, and governance facets of the water system in their city. Armed with basic scientific understanding of rainwater conservation, ground water flows, public sector programmes etc. and trained in simple data collection methods, citizens will collect local information at periodic intervals that will be used to analyse the selected water system of interest.

    We expect to see an increase in the scientific temper and kindle an interest in local water systems and in turn, greater engagement in water governance and employing appropriate technologies and management solutions for the city as result of improved data systems and public acceptability of these solutions.

    This is a long road to travel. However, anchoring and integrating citizen science and citizen participation into our education and local governance processes is likely to deliver robust and sustainable outcomes in enhancing local urban water system resilience. A science – policy – community interface will go a long way in strengthening environmental and social democracy at the grassroots.


    Zeenat Niazi is Chief Knowledge Officer and Senior Vice President of Development Alternatives Group

    This piece has been sourced from Mainstreaming Alternative Perspective

    Image: Development Alternatives

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