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Citizen Science and Environmental Justice in South Africa’s Water Sector

At the heart of the fight for environmental justice (EJ) by activists and communities is a contestation involving information and knowledge, including an understanding of the science surrounding those injustices. The focus of this thesis, through the use of case studies in South Africa, is on how people and organisations are using science to achieve EJ as it relates to the more specific water challenges they experience. In particular this thesis critically reflects on the concept of citizen science (CS), that is described as a way to democratise science and create awareness on environmental issues. In doing so, this thesis sets out and engages three different types of CS. The first is a ‘contributory’ type, where volunteers gather and contribute data to a research project. The second is a ‘collaborative’ type that includes volunteers in some planning around the research, but where the final decisions of the research are taken by ‘professional’ scientists. The third is a co-created type that includes volunteers in all aspects of the research, from developing the research question to analysing and using the data. It is this co-created CS, with which this thesis predominately engages. The overall philosophy of science that has guided the research is a critical realist approach, that acknowledges the existence of an objective reality as well as that this reality is described in socially-constructed knowledge. More specifically, the research is qualitative, entailing interviews, focus groups as well as observation focusing on three selected case studies in which people use citizen science to challenge the environmental injustices of pollution, infrastructure failure and access in relation to water resources. The three case studies investigated are: the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) – which operates as a small movement/alliance of community organisations working on air and water pollution as well as waste from both industry as well as local municipality; the Benchmarks Foundation (BMF) - which works on corporate social responsibility, with a particular focus on the mining sector and the impacts of mining pollution on the communities situated close to the mines; and I4Water – operates as a non-profit company that focuses on training and skills development of community volunteers in the use of citizen science tools to monitor water resources. Collected data from each case study was then analysed through the lens of themes reflected in the interviews/focus groups.
I have relied on my prior knowledge as an activist of more than 30 years’ standing, to understand the contexts of the three case studies, and processes of activist knowledge building, decision making and broader strategic approaches. This research has sharpened and in some ways formalised this internalised knowledge, which was part of my motivation in undertaking these studies. However, I have also consciously used this knowledge as an input into this thesis (see discussion below in methodology chapter, section 3.3). To acknowledge this, I have decided on a first person singular style of presentation. This research examines the approaches to the co-created type of CS being used by these organisations working with fence-line communities affected by environmental injustices around water pollution and water scarcity challenges. While the literature and findings demonstrate that this type of citizen science can build people’s knowledge in science and on environmental issues that can then be used to mobilise communities and challenge power relations, the thesis shows that this is not enough to tackle environmental injustice, which is a challenge that needs a shift in power relations. In this regard, this thesis surfaces the relevancy and need for an activist citizen science (ACS) which is specifically grounded in organisational and movement activism to fight environmental injustices. In general terms, while ACS can be considered to fall under the co-created type of citizen science, it is distinguishable from all three types of CS (cosmetic, collaborative and co-created) as it is conceptually and practically linked to the specific struggle for EJ. The thesis finds that to practise ACS, organisations need to subscribe to the principles of EJ. To show this, the thesis draws on Freirean theory and associated concepts of knowledge, participation, and power from relevant literature. What this reveals is that a fundamental characteristic of ACS is a shifting of relations of knowledge and power that can serve to underpin and strengthen the struggle for EJ. In this sense, ACS can be understood as an activist approach that uses science as a tool to redirect power towards communities and people and to challenge environmental injustice. As the result of an interative process building on both the literature and research findings,
four core characteristics of ACS are identified: (1) building and challenging knowledge production, (2) network and social movement building, (3) shifting power relations and, (4) organisational ethos and ideology. Within this framing, it is argued that ACS must be used within a broader activist strategy and not be seen as a separate activity. In this way, ACS can be used to ensure that marginalised and fence-line groups can participate in, and influence, processes through which decisions are made that affect their lives. While the examples of ACS in this thesis are works in progress, they offer clear and useful perspectives of how ACS can be practised in different ways; in other words, how ACS is being built and can be experimented with. In doing so, this thesis opens the way for future studies to explore further, issues and questions related to assessing levels of achieving EJ; more indepth
examinations of power relations; and, the relative contribution of ACS to struggles for EJ in the South African context.

Full Name
Dr Ferrial Ismail Adam
Programme