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Press Release 
 Bonani Madikizela 
No rocket science needed to check the quality of your local stream – let the ‘nunus’ tell their story!

Imagine going back to the nearest stream to where you grew up.  Is it still there? Is it in better condition than when you visited it as a child?  Using Google Earth satellite you can now re-visit your local stream.  But, better still, you can undertake a simple test to ascertain the stream quality – this is possible by studying the small animals (mainly insects) that live in the stream using miniSASS!

More and more of our water resources are fast becoming polluted and are disappearing due to the demands placed on them by the modern world. This clearly limits the opportunity for kids to simply ‘mess about in rivers’. These missed opportunities further distance us as a society from the source of life’s most vital natural resource: water!

Work started by aquatic ecologists in the 1980s by people like Mark Chutter and others, looked at taking the naturally occurring insect fauna or ‘nunus’ present in our rivers and using them as indicators of the health or condition of these systems – in much the same way as canaries were used by miners to see if the air in a mine was safe or would kill them. Only now, the concern is with the ‘health’ of the river and, ultimately, the availability of this resource as a source of ‘clean’ water for present and future generations.

If the community of organisms (‘nunus’) in the river were showing signs of stress or strain, they could be used as indicators of pollution. This was not rocket science, the earliest civilisations were looking for and using such indicators of the ‘health’ of a river as a sign of its fitness for use. So, a river with dead fish floating on its surface would have been less attractive, or indicative of ‘dirty water’ compared with one with a myriad of fish and other organisms living in it. And all of this is indigenous or local knowledge, in the absence of expensive and sophisticated laboratories. More recently, many readers may have heard of the mass deaths of crocodiles within the Kruger Park – another rather extreme indication of an unhealthy river system.

What was found over the years was that South Africa had reasonably easily recognisable river fauna and that some elements were more sensitive to pollution than others. This spectrum of approximately 90+ aquatic invertebrate families could then be sampled in a standardised manner and used on a regular basis as an indicator of the health of the river system. Thus was born the South African Scoring System (SASS) to measure river health. This has been through various refinements and iterations over the years, so that we now have the scientifically robust SASS version 5 method (Dickens and Graham) widely used by many aquatic ecologists across the country and, indeed, throughout Africa. This method has been developed in accordance with ISO 17025 standards, and the Department of Water Affairs has a system of accreditation to ensure data emerging from this technique is credible.

According to  the project leader Dr Mark Graham from GroundTruth the downside of the SASS5 technique is that it is still fairly onerous in terms of learning all the identifying characteristics and distinctions between the 90+ families that make up the technique. To address this issue, and to develop a tool more suited to the layman, school groups and the environmental education community, the SASS5 technique has been simplified and reduced in complexity to produce the mini-Stream Assessment Scoring System (or miniSASS) tool. This has recently been updated with the support of the Water Research Commission, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa and GroundTruth Consulting.

The complexity of the 90+ families of aquatic invertebrates has been reduced to 13 groups of organisms, and sampling can be undertaken by anyone or groups with an interest in their local water resource. A simple pond net (or old wire coat hanger, shaped into a square and covered with a stocking or sewn mosquito netting), white tray or ice-cream tub, a printed A5 data sheet and identification guide completes the ‘kit’ and this is all one needs to get started!

"One of the key strengths of the miniSASS technique is that the results it produces are very similar to the full SASS technique. This allows the miniSASS tool to act as a ‘red flag’ indicator of the condition of rivers, identifying hot spots and, where further, more detailed follow-up or investigation of the condition or water quality of a river is required. With the possibility of any interested groups of ‘citizen scientists’ starting to monitor their rivers comes a huge window of opportunity to transform how we look at and manage our water resources in the future" , says WRC Research Manager Mr Bonani Madikizela.

A recent investigation looking at the positioning of all schools within South Africa shows that, not surprisingly, most major rivers in the country have a host of schools in close proximity. If all the schools in the country were to simply monitor a river within a 5km radius of themselves, 80% of the approximately 17 700 kilometres of river in South Africa could be covered by this monitoring network of cells.

Added to this, the school curriculum has to cover various aspects of environmental or life science studies (including human effects on the environment, pollution, etc.) at various stages and with varying levels of sophistication. The miniSASS tool provides an ideal opportunity of integrating this teaching requirement (meeting the needs of the curriculum) with schools adopting a river within close proximity and becoming ‘monitoring cells’ –telling the story of how healthy their ‘stretch’ of river is. The collective network of monitoring cells has the added advantage of building a national picture of the health of our rivers, empowering local communities to identify pollution sources, and educating the next generation of consumers and polluters about the effects of their various actions on water resources.

During the Water Research and Development Technology Symposium that took place at the CSIR International Convention Centre on 25 -27 September 2013, the researchers from Groundtruth showcased this WRC – funded project, miniSASS. The miniSASS tool was used by 31 learners from different schools in Gauteng and North West on Friday 26th September as part of the Market Place showcase.

To check the quality of your river go to:  www.minisass.org  and explore how this works – or better still, log-in and conduct your own study. You will notice that once you have done a miniSASS study and located some organisms you can up-load them and, depending on which sensitive insects you find, the computer will automatically calculate a stream quality score for you and allocate the image of a crab (an icon for the health of the stream) from maroon (poor quality) through to blue (good quality).miniSASS video can be watched here


For more information or enquiries contact: Dr Mark Graham or Anelile Gibixego at GroundTruth email: info@minisass.org; Phone +27(033) 3432229 Or Hlengiwe Cele; Water Research Commission email: hlengiwec@wrc.org.za; Cell +27 (0)83 266 9781

School learners practically applying the miniSASS
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