The citizen scientist

An interview with Mark Graham


Text Paolo Candotti Photographs Mark Graham

Learners using the miniSASS at the confluence of the Molweni and uMngeni rivers.

There is a low hum of excitement on the Molweni riverbank as the small group of learners from Kwadinabakubo High School huddle and focus intently on the contents in a white, circular plastic tray on the ground in front of them. Suddenly a shriek of delight rises above the steady gurgling of the flowing water as another “nunu” is identified and added to the scoresheet under the close supervision of a GroundTruth water scientist.

There is a very meaningful convergence of factors happening at this point which the delighted learners and not even the studious GroundTruth scientist are remotely aware of. They are taking part in the biannual testing of the river waters in the Molweni River Catchment as part of the Kloof Conservancy Molweni River Health Schools Project which was started in 2012 following an “inspirational” River Day organised by the Kloof Conservancy; the test site is located where the Molweni river joins Durban’s lifeblood, the uMngeni River and within a few meters from where paddlers in the iconic Dusi Canoe marathon test their skills on their annual race to Blue Lagoon and the learners are using the highly acclaimed Citizen Science tool, the miniSASS monitoring system to gauge the health of the river. The “common factor” to all that is happening is aquatic scientist, innovator and 13 times Dusi competitor Dr Mark Graham.

Mark Graham at the Kloof Conservancy Back-to-Nature River Day – August 2012

It was back in August 2012 when Mark was invited to participate in the Kloof Conservancy’s first ever Back-to-Nature River Day event where he inspired the establishment of the Molweni River Health Schools Project. The event had been organised to raise awareness of the importance of river health following reports of paddlers participating in the Dusi Canoe marathon suffering from “Dusi guts”, an illness resulting in upset stomachs caused by high E.coli. Mark is a founder member of the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) which was established in 2005 with a vision for rivers where water quality and quantity are maintained at acceptable norms with healthy natural riparian zones and where the biological diversity is preserved. To complete the thread, it is Mark that can be rightfully considered the “father” of the miniSASS tool which if all goes to plan should, within the next five years, be used on a global scale to assist communities to track river health and help meet Goal 6 (Clean water and sanitation) of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals1.


If your river is sick, your city is sick.



Born in Kitwe, Zambia Mark attended high school at Mutare Boys High before embarking on a BSc degree in Rangeland Ecology at the then University of Natal, in Pietermaritzburg, followed by an MSc in Biological Sciences and finally a PhD in algal dynamics related to water quality and the cost of treating this water at Potchefstroom University.

When asked what sparked his interest in all things natural Mark replied:

“I think I’ve felt drawn to the natural world as far back as I can remember. Since early childhood I’ve always needed to understand how things work. I was given Coates Palgrave Trees of Southern Africa as a Christmas present as an early teen. I still have that book! The diversity of trees has always amazed and inspired me and probably also helped shape my interest in ecology.

An inspired and inspiring geography teacher at school, Ron Hartley, himself a passionate falconer, introduced me to the natural environment on many a Friday afternoon outing further nurturing my curiosity.”

The love for science and nature was a clear early indicator of the career ahead but the passion for “river health” was to grow much later as opportunities arose in a developing career.

Biomonitoring training 2007 – Kenya

Mark’s early passion for the environment blended well with his chosen field of study and he reflected on how significant his studies have been on the work he excels at today.

”My studies gave me a broad introduction to ecology, ecological principles, landscapes and catchments and the linkages across those landscapes. This has proven to be extremely useful as a water resources scientist – covering where water comes from, its passage through the landscape and then what it can do and the impacts of pollution etc. Much of what I now do in my professional life.”

Study and passion alone are often sufficient to forge a meaningful career, but Mark has been fortunate to have had the added bonus of some inspirational managers and associates that have helped guide the path ahead. Mark described those influences.

“Ron Hartley, at Mutare Boys High as mentioned above provided me with an initial inspiration, but also Dr Chris Dickens, my immediate boss and mentor at Umgeni Water. We had a fairly unfettered existence and could explore and establish the Hydrobiology laboratory at Umgeni Water and develop, publish and implement some of the now fairly standard practises around hydrobiological monitoring that is common across South Africa. Umgeni Water was a pioneer and leader in its day and getting some of this work started in SA.

But there were also some “interesting characters” that helped influence Mark.

“This field is littered with crazy, inspiring and funny people. They have enlivened the space we work in. The late Roddy Ward was a real character, and a privilege to work with some years ago. Various EKZNW characters we’ve worked with. The late Rob Karssing was a gem! Prof Gordon Gray was an inspiration – still working and writing scientific papers into her 90s! Prof Tainton, my first academic professor, an ever enquiring and interested human being – so humble too!”

Opening a small window into his love for philosophy Mark added:

“These days I look up to Socrates who said something like, ‘I know nothing at all’. I’ve taken this to mean that we never know it all and as such it’s a really practical guide to how we engage with the world. With a sense of open enquiry, unbounded by dogma and fixed ideas, we have an amazing creation to explore and engage with and learn from others in.

Gamsberg – Baseline Biodiversity Assessments – Northern Cape 2009

Mark started his career as a Research Scientist, initially at the University of Natal and working on an MSc in Hluhluwe Game Reserve for 3 years. He described this as a highlight of his research career, working and living in the Dung Beetle Research Centre for 3 years and working with other Natal Parks Board as it was then (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) Research Scientists and reserve staff. A great environment to bounce around ideas and scientific principles.

Biomonitoring Congo River DRC 2007

The travel bug and curiosity, which have remained constants in Mark’s career then took priority and he embarked on a year’s gap to south-east Asia and India until the reality of having to repay his student loan convinced him of the need for a steady job! Mark described his early career:

“I found work as a Research Scientist on a Water Research Commission (WRC) project with Umgeni Water. This allowed me to finish my MSc part time and start working. The Umgeni Water research project was investigating the impacts of algal rupture during the passage/transport of water from Umgeni Water dams to their water treatment plant in Durban. This was in the early days and whilst Inanda Dam was still being built and not yet supplying water to Durban. Monitoring had picked up this rupture phenomena in transfer of water from Nagle Dam to Durban Heights, and which made water more difficult to treat. The expectation was that might also happen at the new Wiggins Water Treatment Works – which was still being built – and advanced treatment processes may be necessary to treat that water. This was fascinating applied research and great to get involved in.

From there we managed to secure another WRC research project – modelling algal dynamics and water quality in all of the Umgeni Water dams, and their impacts on water treatment costs. I also managed to use and convert this research work into a part time PhD study, whilst working at Umgeni Water. From there I moved into the hydrobiology laboratories and worked as a Scientist there for many years, developing some of the aquatic biomonitoring capacity and tools for the company. During this time, I also became involved in developing various Citizen Science tools for environmental education, including the miniSASS tool.”

The next career move was a defining moment not only from a career opportunity but also as part of Mark’s personal development as he took the significant step of starting his own environmental consultancy.

“I eventually left Umgeni Water after 13 years and started GroundTruth, above the garage at home. We now employ 30 staff as scientists, engineers and technicians and working extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East – in water resources and rehabilitation.

I suppose going out on one’s own will always be a somewhat daunting prospect, but it also seemed like a natural evolution in my career. If I wanted to focus on the sort of projects that I felt would make the sort of difference that I was hoping to make, then I would have to be the one sourcing and landing those projects. Also recognising that in a bigger, bureaucratic organisation there would always be a great deal of inertia and red tape to getting things done. GroundTruth is small enough and agile enough to respond to the needs it sees around it and to industries, society etc. We continue to strive to be not too bureaucratic!! It’s a constant struggle.”

 Aquatic Biomonitoring – Liqhobong Lesotho 2009

In many ways GroundTruth has become the “go to” organisations when there is major river health issues as evidenced by their involvement in the Willowton Oil spill in Pietermaritzburg in 2019 and more recently the UPL disaster in Umhlanga. Working for the “polluter” creates significant challenges, Mark explained:

“The environment has always, and will always be, our number one client. There have been times when our integrity as environmental specialists has been put to the test, but I’m happy to be able to state with certainty that said integrity has never been compromised for the sake of money or pressure from an unscrupulous potential client. This is at the core of our DNA. There are challenges and the most difficult one is probably trying to convince clients to do the “right thing” and then steering them onto a more sensible environmental path. Not always easy.”

In the context of working in difficult situations were often there is a need for pragmatic solutions I asked Mark if he considered himself an environmentalist or a scientist.

“The two do, and must, go hand-in-hand. I like to think that I engage with each challenge using my head and my heart to find a resolution. One can’t look at our environmental challenges from a purely scientific point of view without engaging with the social, historical and emotional aspects associated with each one. Of course, the reverse is also true! A wholistic approach is absolutely essential.”

The highly specialised work carried out by GroundTruth has resulted in many opportunities for travel both within and outside of South Africa. Mark explained.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have had my work take me to many countries and cultures throughout Africa, and the Middle East, most recently Morocco and Jordan, both of which were a fascinating blend of cultures!

ORASECOM Joint Basin Survey – Maletsenyane Falls, Lesotho – 2015

“GroundTruth recently undertook a Joint Basin Survey for ORASECOM (The Orange-Senqu River Commission) which entailed a survey of the largest river system in southern Africa, from source to sea and all major tributaries. This study is undertaken every 5 years, and GroundTruth has participated in the last two iterations. What a privilege to sample and work within an amazing river system and to see parts of the country that few get to travel, from the source high in the Drakensberg mountains, all the way down to the estuary at Oranjemund.”

Although Mark does enjoy the travel experience particularly to remote areas the journey is not always what one wishes it to be.

“Possibly one of the more strange and sadly bizarrely humorous incidents happened when we were working on a project up in the Northeast DRC some years ago. It was an aquatic biodiversity study for an expanding gold mine in the area and the local landscape and characters resembled what the Wild West would have felt and looked like. The village street had numerous small shops and stores, with the gold dealers set up with their weighing scales and buying raw gold from the miners in the area. The area around the mine was filled with artisanal gold miners, all hoping for and digging out the countryside hoping to make a living. They had drifted in from far and wide, in a modern day “gold rush”, hoping to make their fortunes and were panning all the local streams and extracting gold tailings out of the rivers. Needless to say, the stream and rivers were running like chocolate with all the workings going on. The sad part though was walking through the village and seeing some really crazed individuals walking erratically through the streets and shouting incoherently. When we enquired what was going on we were told that these were some of the locals who had been working in cramped huts and boiling mercury amalgam to purify the gold. The highly toxic mercury fumes had caused many of these characters to quite literally go mad, and hence we have the English expression Mad as a Hatter – when the old-time hat makers were similarly affected by working with furs impregnated with mercury! So, to be in this wild west situation in the wild Northeast Congo was somewhat surreal!

Looking into the near future, Mark explained his medium-term plans:

“Taking Citizen Science to scale globally. We (South Africa) have developed some amazing resources, people, and processes in the field, and which I feel we can and should share more widely with the world. We are keen to work on this some more and hope to be able to share it more globally. I’ve written too many “scientific” reports that don’t do much more than sitting on shelves. I’m keen to move past that stage now and in my career to make the differences need to effect change in water resource management.

It has always and still amazes me when in the field how someone dressed in a pair of waders and wielding a net somehow is a magnet for young rural children. In that space comes the chance of some really interesting and informative interactions and the chance to share some “science” and connection to the natural world. Some of this insight has further inspired our Citizen Science work and encouraged us to work at that level of developing tools and resources and tuning into that natural curiosity in most of the youth.”

There are numerous projects that bear the clear imprint of Marks input, knowledge, and guidance but one that is certain to leave a significant mark across not only South Africa but possibly the globe is the miniSASS system.

miniSASS is a simple tool based on SASS52 which can be used by anyone to monitor the health of a river by recording and scoring the macroinvertebrates (small animals) found in a sample of the river water. The system is very simple and fun to use creating the potentially for every school, environmental or community group to become a monitoring cell. With a good geographical spread, the miniSASS tool can be used as a ‘red flag’ for the identification of aquatic pollution sources and events in their immediate environment.

miniSASS Dichotomous key

Mark explained how the miniSASS system was developed.

“Early on in my career I realised there was a definite need for citizen scientists to become involved in monitoring and caring for our environment. They are generally highly motivated to learn and practice skills that enable them to keep their immediate surroundings (the stream on their farm or the river where they take their kids for outings) in good health.

Whilst at Umgeni Water, Dr Jim Taylor approached us, and knowing what we were doing with SASS asked if we could assist with developing a tool for environmental education. We toyed with various ideas and ended up refining miniSASS. Since then, we have seen the utility of the tool for engaging youth and community groups etc. around water resources and have kept nurturing it through the years. Hoping to share the tools of science more widely. It’s been amazing meeting younger professionals now who mention having done it at school for a project!

miniSASS (with some minor local adaptations) is a simple yet elegant system that will work in any river, in any country or climate zone around the world. The miniSASS movement is rapidly gaining momentum and is receiving the recognition and interest it deserves from international players in the water and environmental game. The UN are actively looking at it for global water monitoring for SDGs etc. UNICEF are keen to use it for youth involvement in water resources and taking local action around water related issues. It is expanding around the world and the networks it has created is very satisfying.

The use of miniSASS has been growing steadily and there are some influential spin-offs such as the success of the EnviroChamp! Here we have interested community members, in disenfranchised communities, getting actively involved in managing their water resources sustainably.

This power of civil society to hold authorities etc. to account and with good defensible scientific data, is very powerful and to see its expansion outside of South Africa is gratifying too.

We’re currently in talks with several global players and multinational organisations who are eager to host the miniSASS website and assist with the introduction of the miniSASS methodology to the international environmental community. These include the UN, UNICEF and Amazon Web Services.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations have developed the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as a globally approved policy and action process and the miniSASS system could easily be used for SDG 6 which addresses the issues of water quality and availability.

Whilst miniSASS is clearly one of the more significant water monitoring initiatives currently underway it is important to recognise the enormous challenges facing South Africa when it comes to water resources and water quality. DUCT was formed by a group of concerned canoeists in 2005 to highlight the plight of water quality in the Dusi. The inescapable fact however is that not only has the Umgeni River continued to deteriorate but the contagion of poor quality water has spread to most other rivers in Kwazulu Natal and elsewhere in South Africa. Marks response.

“It’s mostly down to us humans, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, as the human race has advanced and populations have increased, we’re having more and more negative impact on our water systems – and the natural world as a whole, of course. Think of some of the obvious negative influencers such as pollution from industrial waste which threatens the aquatic macro and micro invertebrates which aid in keeping our water healthy, excess nutrients (fertilizers) from farming activities which promote the overgrowth of certain algae and human waste in the form of litter, sewage etc. There are, sadly, very few untouched stretches of river left, certainly in South Africa.

With specific reference to DUCT and the state of the Umgeni I feel it would have been a lot worse had there been no DUCT! I continue to work and hope to inspire others to pick up the cudgels to fight for the environment and water in this area and country. It’s the Star Fish principle really…..”


The Starfish Principle – Every Little Bit Helps


The Starfish Principle comes from a story told in various forms, inspired by Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower.

Once upon a time, there was a wise man, much like Eiseley himself, who used to go to the ocean to do his writing.

He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer.

He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day.

So he began to walk faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?” The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

“But young man, don’t you realise that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves. “It made a difference for that one!”


In this context and adding in the many other challenges currently facing South Africa and the globe as a whole such as climate change and biodiversity loss, I asked Mark to comment on the general state of the environment and whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about the future for the environment as a whole in, Durban, SA and elsewhere and why?

“Of course there is hope….

Salmon returned to the Thames after many many years of being absent! I’m fundamentally an optimist – which is why I’m still in this wonderful country and working at GroundTruth! So, with the right leadership and direction we can and should be turning this lot around in South Africa. Its primarily a case of just doing the basics right. It’s not some fuzzy and indecipherable cloud of unknowing that exists in this space. The correct individuals also now need to stand up and do their job! Our civil servants need to serve more and get on with their jobs which is serving within their respective fields – including the water sector! Much needs to be done here.

That’s what keeps us going at GroundTruth and is in our DNA. So, lots of work to be done, but all positive and excited to be part of this journey. We have no option!

Paddling the Dusi Canoe Marathon with daughter Hannah 2017

On a pragmatic and personal note, Mark explained that he takes his positive outlook into his own backyard by “rehabilitating a couple of hectares at the headwaters of the Townbush Stream and next to our property in Hilton. I have been working on this piece of land for nearly 30years and planting trees and rewilding a scrappy piece of wattle and bugweed infested land. Several hundred trees later and almost a hundred different species, some local kids may still experience a piece of Mistbelt Forest in about 20 years!”

Words and actions of a true member of the Eco-Impi3!


United Nations Sustainable Development Goals1

The 6th goal of sustainable development is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. More specifically, 8 targets have been set and need to be attained by 2030.


The SASS5 system is an empirical, carefully designed and refined methodology used to provide a scientific and credible assessment of the status or health of a river by means of examining the aquatic macroinvertebrates or, in simple terms, ‘water insects’, found in a particular reach of river.


An Impi is defined as “an armed band of Zulu warriors involved in urban or rural conflict”. In our context we refer to an Eco-Impi as those conservationists armed with knowledge and experience who are fighting to help protect our biodiversity and have made a significant impact in our area.