Ruppen analysed the water samples at the aquatic research institute Eawag because she could not find a laboratory in Zimbabwe with the required quality standards. The researcher travelled back to Hwange again in February 2019 to collect the samples from the first few months. “I was pretty nervous. Did the people take any samples at all, and if so, had they done them correctly? Did everybody stay committed? The motivation of the participants is crucial in such citizen science projects. That’s what I was most afraid of at the beginning.” These concerns were unfounded, as it turned out. “People welcomed me with bags of samples and had lots of things to talk about. I was enormously relieved.” The cooperation with the community worked rather well despite the distance and technical hurdles – not everyone had a working phone to keep Ruppen up to date. A much bigger challenge was the logistics. “The plastic tubes for the water samples are hard to get in Zimbabwe and are ten times more expensive than here. So I ordered some in South Africa, but they were stolen during transit. In the end, I brought bags of sample tubes from Switzerland.”
Knowledge is power
The study has been finished in the meantime. It has not only provided important figures and answers, but has left a lasting mark on the local people. “I find it fascinating how people have adopted the vocabulary, how they discuss pH levels with government officials, for example. They can have their say now and are taken more seriously than before,” says Ruppen. “A young woman told me that since she joined the project, she has been invited to village elders’ meetings because she has something to say about the water.” This is also the strength of citizen science projects; they empower the local population, strengthen their position with regard to the economy and the state, and thus offset imbalances of power.
Some of the citizen scientists would like to have continued the project, to continue collecting samples to create even more evidence, says Ruppen. “But that will not change the result. There is now enough well-founded, valid data that clearly shows the extent of the pollution and no longer allows for excuses. Now, finally, the government and the companies must take systematic measures.” A next step in this direction is already becoming apparent. The civil society organisation that has been accompanying the local population in Hwange for a long time in their fight against water pollution wants to file a lawsuit against the companies responsible. The data from Ruppen’s study is a key pillar of their argument.