7 March 2019

Communities monitor river health on the Atrato

A key goal of Colombia River Stories is to work alongside communities to generate data that is of use to them. One of the ways we do this is through our citizen science programme. This element of the research project aims to empower local communities to monitor the ‘health’ of the Río Atrato.  On a visit to Chocó in January, we facilitated a series of workshops that explored the community’s understanding of the Atrato, and discussed how scientific sampling might support their existing knowledge.  Nelly ran short training courses for each town’s new river scientists on how to use some basic equipment and take samples.  During our time in Paimadó, though, an additional issue emerged that would reshape this element of the project.

Lack of access to clean, safe drinking water is a principal cause of infant mortality in Chocó. In 2016, the overall infant mortality rate for the region was over 40 per 1000 live births, over double the Colombian national average (UNMAIC, 2017). In Paimadó, community residents reported that local children had taken ill recently.  They wondered if this was due to contamination of the town’s water sources, and asked if we could take samples for testing.  Our citizen science methodology monitors river turbidity, oxygen level, pH, temperature, conductivity and water level.  It was unsuited to the testing requested by the community.  However, we were nevertheless able to help.

Curious to test our hotel’s water quality, Nick had brought coliform counting plates to Chocó.  These plates would now allow us to assist the communities in testing for the sort of bacteria that are most commonly linked to gastrointestinal illness – a major factor in the high rates of infant mortality. Nick and Nelly travelled with a couple of community leaders – Angel and Miguel [pseudonyms] – to the water sources and provided on-the-spot training on how to take samples.  At the end of the visit, we took the samples back to Quibdó to prepare the plates for coliform cultures – keeping them as close to body temperature as possible for 24-36 hours before counting the bacteria (each purple dot represents one bacteria in the picture below).

Examples of coliform counting plates (coliforms in 1 ml)


Water from Paimadó distribution network (1717 coliforms)


Water from the stream used for drinking and cooking (282 coliforms)

The results were troubling.  In Europe, the standard for drinking water is zero coliform per 100ml.  The samples from Paimadó showed over 200 for one drinking source and well over 1000 coliforms per ml for the water distribution network.   This represents the equivalent of over 20,000 coliform per 100ml for the first source and more than 100,000 for the other.  We shared the findings with Angel in Quibdó.  He was shocked to see the results. He told us that people tended to avoid drinking from that source anyway mainly due to its location farther from the village, but at times there was no other option. For example, that very week we were unable to access the community’s main drinking source near the river due to heavy rainfall making it inaccessible. If we couldn’t access it to test it, the community couldn’t access it to drink it.  We were unable check if the quality of their main drinking source was better than the one we tested.

When we returned to Paimadó, Angel presented the results of the coliform testing to the community.  He explained the process of taking the sample and how to prepare the counting plate for testing, before interpreting the results.  There were gasps from the group when Angel showed the culture on the projector and discussed the comparison with EU water-quality standards.  He reinforced safety messages, including boiling the water for at least two minutes before consumption.  This was community-led citizen science: from the demand for testing and training to the presentation of results and communication of harm-avoidance messages.

We met with our partners in the Pastoral Social a couple of days later to go over our plans for citizen science.  When we raised the possibility of adding coliform water sampling, they immediately saw the value of this for embedding public health messages in communities.  The Pastoral Social’s public health team told us that diarrhoea remained the biggest single cause of infant mortality in rural communities in Chocó.  They said that communication campaigns around water health had been largely ineffective.  They thought a community-led initiative may have more impact in driving home these messages.  More than this, though, it would put evidence in the hands of communities long-marginalised by central government.

By gathering their own data, communities are able to confirm what they already know and demonstrate it to others with confidence: that neglect from the authorities has denied them access to clean, safe water.  While the route to substantive change is far from simple, having this kind of scientific evidence gives communities an important tool in advocacy, to demand the basic infrastructure that many take for granted.


Research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number ES/S001883/1