Assessing wetland health using a newly developed land cover citizen science tool for use by local people who are not wetland specialists
Community Members Accurately Evaluating Wetland Health
Wetlands are important environments that provide vital ecosystem services to millions of people worldwide. Unfortunately, many wetlands have been destroyed or damaged, so more effective management is needed to protect these places. Although wetland scientists can easily determine wetland health, little research has been done to see whether community members can be trained and empowered to effectively monitor and understand the health of local wetlands. This study examines whether, and under what conditions, community members can be trained to use an environmental health tool to evaluate wetland health.
Taking place in South Africa, this study focused on two wetlands: the Siphumelele wetland in Howich and the Ixopo Golf Course wetland in Ixopo. Researchers developed a monitoring tool to allow non-specialists to develop an accurate estimate of wetland health. To assess the tool’s utility and accuracy in practice, 56 participants were trained during daylong workshops, with 10 working at the Siphumelele wetland and 46 at the Ixopo wetland. The participants represented different groups of citizens who might use the wetland tool, including landowners, government officials, and university students.
The research had three objectives: (1) to see whether participants could use the tool to accurately assess wetland health, (2) to explore the possible variability between wetland health scores, and (3) to understand participants’ attitudes toward the health tool. The mixed methods study gathered data in a number of ways. The researchers collected the scoresheets from the wetland health tool and gave participants a questionnaire with Likert-scale-type questions to assess participant attitudes. They also held focus groups to discuss the participants’ experiences using the wetland health tool.
The data from the wetland health tool was analyzed using Levene’s variance comparison. For the Siphumelele wetland analysis, where participant scores were compared with those of an expert wetland scientist, researchers found no significant difference in the scores. For the Ixopo wetland analysis, participant scores were compared against Participant 5 from the previous assessment as the control, as this participant had previous wetland-monitoring experience. The analysis also found no significant difference between scores. Additionally, the results showed that all participants, whether or not they had experience with the wetland health tool, could determine wetland health accurately. In terms of perceptions, 84% of the participants said they would use the wetland tool in the future; 70% thought it was easy to use; and 88% thought the tool helped them understand wetlands better.
The Bottom Line
Trained community members using a rapid-assessment wetland health tool can evaluate the state of wetlands in a manner similar to that of a trained scientist. Such tools may be used for both wetland monitoring as well as for general environmental education opportunities. Practitioners using such environmental health assessments should involve a range of the public, bringing in people with varying levels of education and different backgrounds. Not only will these tools encourage widerscale wetland monitoring, but they also will help enhance local residents’ understanding of wetland health and the significance of such ecosystems.