Ripple effect: advancing waterway resilience


Water pollution is a major issue of public concern. With issues such as sewage spills, industrial discharges, and agricultural runoff, water bodies in the UK are failing to achieve 'good ecological status.' This action-research project aims to engage and empower people through citizen science techniques, monitor water health and biodiversity, and disseminate findings to governing bodies. Importantly, it will explore and define motivations and behaviours of participants, as part of wider research on the importance of connection and care as a pathway for sustainability.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project addresses the following SDGs:

    SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-being
    SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation
    SDG13 – Climate Action
    SDG 14 – Life below Water
    SDG 15 – Life on Land
    SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

Water pollution is a serious public health issue. It can cause cancer, gastroenteritis, viral infections, sinus infections, skin rashes and conjunctivitis; when swimming in polluted rivers adults and children can expect to ingest significant doses of human coliforms. The UK rates as among the worst in European water quality rankings with reportedly all rivers in England showing signs of chemical pollution. Poor water quality is not only harmful to human health but also impacts negatively on biodiversity and ecological functioning. However, the access to rigorous and verified evidence is limited due to capacity and funding constraints. 

This project aims to assess the water pollution and biodiversity status of the Upper River Medway, identify pollution sources and engage relevant policy-makers to develop pathways for sustainable change, which will ‘ripple’ out beyond this case.

By addressing the need for data and harnessing action on water health, the "Ripple Effect" project contributes to SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), in addition to SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) ensuring availability and sustainable management of water.

Recent research suggests sewage discharge is the major driver of biodiversity loss in rivers in England, which can degrade ecosystem processes, including organic matter decomposition. Improved regulations will restore river biodiversity and functioning which directly impacts SDG 14 (Life below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land). Furthermore, restoring healthy, functioning river ecosystems mitigates against the effects of climate change, restoring the capacity of rivers transporting and storing carbon, and is a critical step towards building climate resilience addressing SDG 13 (Climate Action).

Finally, by empowering people using citizen science techniques, in partnership with local communities and key stakeholders, the research addresses SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) and aligns with key SSRP sustainability research themes including Ecosystems, Rights and Justice; Planetary Health; and South Coast sustainability.

Timeline and funding


November 2023 - July 2024


SSRP funding (£19,175)


This project will:

  • co-create a citizen science project called “Ripple Effect” that will develop methods for assessing water pollution and biodiversity in the Upper River Medway
  • run four workshops with 30 participants and at least two Masters students to refine project aims, identify monitoring sites; train on eDNA biodiversity monitoring data collection methods (NatureMetrics), water quality sampling kits, and invertebrate surveys; submit and evaluate data; disseminate findings; and formulate next steps
  • determine species accumulation across replicate samples, compare eDNA data with survey data, and measure the effects of pollution level on species scores, through student-led analysis
  • conduct participant observation and twelve semi-structured interviews at the start, middle, and end of the project with participants and stakeholders, to explore motivations, beliefs and behaviours, which in turn will help to determine how connection and care can be a pathway to sustainability
  • create a project website and an open-source database hub.

Expected outcomes and impacts

The “Ripple Effect” project aims to forge strong community and key stakeholder partnerships around river health to develop more sustainable pathways and provide citizens with the knowledge and resources needed to monitor water health, empowering them to act for change. Identifying sources of pollution through testing, monitoring and evaluation can enhance influence for policy change. It also provides evidence for environmental regulators to raise penalties, thereby ensuring accountability. This, in turn, could help to ‘ripple out’ and have greater leverage for promoting healthier and more biodiverse waterways. Furthermore, the team will identify the impacts of more access and care for rivers on social and individual behaviours and practices. 

The economic impacts and outcomes extend beyond those measured by GDP growth or short-term profit, as the research addresses the significant economic costs of contamination from toxic waterways. Nutrient-rich rivers are causing ocean eutrophication, destroying fishing and tourism industries as well as the health of humans and wildlife. Furthermore, access to rivers and nature as well as community empowerment have significant health benefits, reducing costs for the NHS. Finally, given the underfunding and lack of capacity of regulatory and monitoring bodies such as the Environment Agency, this project will help to fill much needed data gaps in monitoring the health of waterways.

Beyond immediate outcomes, this project supports early career progression through new research findings and academic publications, forms a baseline and toolkit for monitoring biodiversity and pollution effects, and feeds into teaching and learning. The interdisciplinary and collaborative approach will lead to a more holistic understanding of socio-natural ecosystems, and motivations for engagement in citizen science and its effects, which is part of a broader research objective on nature connection to foster pathways to sustainability. This small-grants funded “Ripple Effect” project will hopefully be the seed of a larger project with the vision to establish a regional research hub and network of organisations working for water health.

On a larger scale, the ecological data gathered in this initial project will serve as compelling evidence of how human activities are impacting the structure and ecological functioning of our river ecosystems. This data can lay the foundation and begin to build a Rights of Nature defence argument protecting these waterway ecosystems, which could feed directly into policymaking, as part of the emergent and growing field of ‘ecological forensics’. The research team also hopes to incorporate discussions on Rights of Nature in workshop discussions to address the challenges faced in this context, including how people perceive and appreciate the intrinsic value of Nature.

The team

Where we worked

Sussex, UK.