Articles | Volume 7, issue 2
Special issue:
GC Insights
27 Jun 2024
GC Insights |  | 27 Jun 2024

GC Insights: Lessons from participatory water quality research in the upper Santa River basin, Peru

Sally Rangecroft, Caroline Clason, Rosa Maria Dextre, Isabel Richter, Claire Kelly, Cecilia Turin, Claudia V. Grados-Bueno, Beatriz Fuentealba, Mirtha Camacho Hernandez, Sergio Morera Julca, John Martin, and John Adam Guy

Here we share four key lessons from an interdisciplinary project (Nuestro Rio) that gathered community perspectives on local water quality in the Santa River basin (Peru) utilising a digital technological approach where we collected data via a novel photo elicitation app, supported by a field work campaign. The lessons explored in this article provide insights into challenges and opportunities for researchers considering developing technological tools for encouraging participation and engagement in marginalised communities.

1 Introduction

Water quality, crucial for survival as well as socio-economic and environmental sustainability, is threatened by both natural events and human activities in many regions of the world and aggravated by impacts of climate and land use change (Anderson, 2016; Magnússon et al., 2020; Saleem et al., 2024). Water quality directly impacts the lives of water users (Azevêdo et al., 2022), yet local perspectives, knowledge, and emotions are often not considered (Dextre et al., 2022). Furthermore, water quality can be a secondary consideration to water quantity despite being closely intertwined in water insecurity (Clason et al., 2023; Rangecroft et al., 2023). Water quality is a complex, multifaceted issue, which can be judged by indicators such as acidity, clarity, smell, taste, or chemical composition (Flotemersch and Aho, 2021). Some aspects of water quality are visible (e.g. colour or turbidity), whereas others are “hidden” (e.g. heavy metal content) and only quantifiable by field or laboratory instrumentation and analysis (Flotemersch and Aho, 2021). Whilst water quality variables are commonly measured and monitored through methodologies available in the natural sciences (Saleem et al., 2024), local communities can provide unique information about the state of their ecosystem (Okumah et al., 2020; Richter et al., 2022). Water users not only directly depend on local water sources but are also sensitive to changes in water availability, quality, and ecosystems over time, providing insights beyond the temporal and spatial scope of in situ measurements (Pauly, 1995; Azevêdo et al., 2022). Furthermore, community participation and traditional ecological knowledge can help decision makers to develop feasible solutions and facilitate tailor-made governance that is accepted and implemented by multiple parties (Mistry and Berardi, 2016; Albagli and Iwama, 2022; Richter et al., 2022).

In the Nuestro Rio project, we developed an app to engage communities and collect local insights into water quality in Peru's Santa River upper basin, addressing the lack of participatory research in the region's water security studies. Our novel data collection tool helped to provide a voice for social perspectives and knowledge within water quality. Here we present the four key lessons from our approach, specifically the advantages and shortcomings of developing and using technology for this purpose. For full details on the methodology and results of the Nuestro Rio project itself, see Rangecroft et al. (2023).

2 Methods

The Santa River is important for water security, both locally and regionally (Baraer et al., 2012; Recharte et al., 2017), but experiences both water quality issues and availability issues related to glacier retreat and to anthropogenic pressures such as pollution, extraction, and water governance (Magnússon et al., 2020; Aylas-Quispe et al., 2021). During a short pilot project (2020–2021), we used a multi-method approach to collect local insights into water quality, combining an app for user-uploaded photographs, survey questions, and face-to-face interviews during fieldwork. The Nuestro Rio app was specifically designed to understand local perceptions and to identify the drivers of water quality issues. Geolocated photographs of local waters taken by participants were collected through the app alongside a survey assessing perceptions of water quality and related emotions (see Supplement). The app was designed in Spanish as the most accessible language for the study region. To aid the launch of the app and to facilitate data collection, in-country researchers also directly communicated with several communities across the upper Santa River basin (Fig. 1). Participants (aged 18+) were invited to engage with the app on tablets (e.g. ownership of smart devices and advanced technological skills were not required); researchers offered guidance and translation where needed. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted during field visits with communities using the same questions as the app survey (see Supplement). Quantitative data were analysed using descriptive statistics, and qualitative data were coded and analysed using an emergent thematic framework to identify key themes (for more information on the methods and results see Rangecroft et al., 2023). Throughout this research and community engagement process, key lessons were identified and are shared here as the focus of this insights paper.

Figure 1Map of perceived water quality (collected via the Nuestro Rio app) across the study area of the upper Santa River basin, Peru. Point colour represents the participant-rated water quality (good, neutral, or bad), and examples of photos from participants are shown. Note that this figure is simplified to illustrate the project concept and is not a representation of our full, in-depth research findings.

3 Key lessons

3.1 The importance of in-person engagement

Engaging directly with participants during fieldwork proved valuable, outweighing financial and time expenditures. This hands-on approach helped avoid research fatigue by focusing on the quality rather than the quantity of interactions. The majority of the 350 data entries were the result of direct community engagement in the field. Participant engagement is known to be a challenge for citizen science and participatory data collection (Fraisl et al., 2022), which was reflected in the poor participation rate outside of the field activities. Direct in-person interactions can address potential obstacles, whether they relate to limited access to or limited familiarity with smart devices (as discussed in Sect. 3.2) or to issues of trust. Although the app's use of Spanish potentially posed a barrier in areas where Quechua is the dominant language, our in-field researchers facilitated communication by translating materials to and from Quechua (Rangecroft et al., 2023). Additionally, in-person interactions enabled us to clarify survey questions and research objectives through informal dialogues (see Sect. 3.4).

3.2 Challenges of digital (in)accessibility

Considering potential barriers such as device availability, technological familiarity, and limited internet access is critical when introducing an app for data collection in a diverse community setting. Originally, we had planned in-person training sessions, but due to COVID-19 we had to transition to training videos and online workshops, which may have limited the potential for recruitment outside of community-specific fieldwork. This change highlights the importance of designing technology with the target audience's needs in mind, potentially through co-developing apps with participants (Daum et al., 2019). Such a participatory process, however, requires extended research project periods, particularly for complex, transdisciplinary projects such as Nuestro Rio. A large portion of the local population of our study area either lacks smartphones or is not tech-savvy, an issue intensified by factors of demographics, intersectionality, and poor reception. Even in urban areas with better internet service and use, we observed low uptake, possibly due to inadequate engagement incentives. Future research could further disentangle motivations for participation in regions where technology is a limitation as well as in regions where it is not a limitation, while deliberate training strategies are also recommended (e.g. online, on-site, or handout instructions; Martin et al., 2021; Fraisl et al., 2022).

3.3 Need for co-produced knowledge and solutions

Sustainable approaches to water management require understanding how communities perceive and manage their resources, a facet often overlooked in research (Steinwender et al., 2008; Dean et al., 2016; Okumah et al., 2020). Our work indicated a community desire for engagement and openness to co-design of solutions, in addition to a desire to communicate their perceptions to local and regional decision makers. Local communities are often not included in decision making processes around management of water resources in this region (Dextre et al., 2022), yet engaging with communities can be an entry point to inclusive resource management. Furthermore, engaging local people in the decision-making process itself can empower individuals and communities to influence water governance processes and also strengthen acceptance and support for new resource management policies (Okumah et al., 2020; Albagli and Iwama, 2022). The positive reception to our project, particularly from participants familiar with being overlooked in past research, emphasises the importance of incorporating local expertise continuously throughout the research process for genuine global collaboration and ensuring equitable participation, especially in projects involving north–south dynamics. Additionally, in project design and delivery it is vital that we return the knowledge generated to the participants who helped build it; however, this can be extremely challenging in projects with limited funded time.

3.4 Complexity of “water quality” as an environmental concept

The term “water quality” was variously interpreted by participants, frequently necessitating clarification during fieldwork, particularly in rural settings. This variation might stem from ambiguous communication of research objectives or from different cultural and linguistic understandings of water. For instance, some languages might have specific terms for unique types of water or aspects of water quality that lack direct translations. This nuanced understanding underscores the importance of face-to-face interactions and the potential for qualitative data methods to bridge the comprehension gap between participants and researchers. Whilst a Quechuan–Spanish translator assisted field-based data collection to support the use of preferred language, translation was not possible for participants engaging with the app independently. Language and world view are thus other key considerations, given indigenous perceptions of and emotions related to water, in addition to the importance of water beyond its role as a physical resource (Tipa, 2009; Azevêdo et al., 2022).

4 Recommendations for future participatory environmental research

The lessons learned from this project offer important considerations for the design of future community engagement for co-production of knowledge and solutions around environmental issues, especially using digital technological approaches. A shift away from heavy reliance on monitoring and modelling data for environmental assessment and towards a more holistic approach covering insights from the natural and social sciences is required for equitable and sustainable resource management (Drenkhan et al., 2023). The Nuestro Rio experience highlighted that while digital methods expand reach, in-person interactions are vital for deep engagement. Collaborative design with local partners from the outset ensures sensitivity to local contexts and enhances community buy-in. In many contexts, digital-only approaches cannot encapsulate the deeper understanding obtained through participant–researcher dialogue. It is also essential to consider and address logistical challenges in data collection, including accessibility (geographic, technological, and linguistic), embedding research and researchers within communities, catering to community needs, and grasping the driving factors behind participation. Effective communication along the community–research–policy management continuum requires careful consideration of how data are understood and valued. Researchers must also be mindful of the time required to build trust and co-design research effectively (Rangecroft et al., 2021). Finally, there is also an important distinction to be considered here between citizen science and participatory research for giving participants agency in influencing decision-making (Albagli and Iwama, 2022; Illingworth, 2023).

Data availability

Please contact the corresponding author if you would like to request access to the data. Further information about the qualitative data in the Nuestro Rio project can be found in Rangecroft et al. (2023).


The supplement related to this article is available online at:

Author contributions

All authors are part of the Nuestro Rio project team and enabled the research through various contributions. The paper was developed from insights discussed in project meetings and conversations related to other project outputs. SR and CC led the paper preparation with editing contributions from IR, CK, and RMD. RMD prepared the paper figure.

Competing interests

The contact author has declared that none of the authors has any competing interests.

Ethical statement

The research was conducted with ethical approval from the University of Plymouth. Considerations of good ethical practice included gaining informed consent for participation, only including participants aged 18 or over, and ensuring the anonymity of data. Other areas of good ethical practice included the dissemination of results and outputs back to involved communities and participants where possible.


Publisher's note: Copernicus Publications remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims made in the text, published maps, institutional affiliations, or any other geographical representation in this paper. While Copernicus Publications makes every effort to include appropriate place names, the final responsibility lies with the authors.


The authors would like to thank all the participants for their time and interest, as without them the project would not be possible. The Nuestro Rio project was funded by GCRF via the University of Plymouth and was further supported by the Newton Fund (UK NERC grant number NE/S013245/1) and ProCiencia-CONCYTEC (Peru contract number 010-2019-Fondecyt). The authors would also like to extend their thanks to all those who helped to support in the field, whose involvement and support was crucial.

Financial support

The Nuestro Rio project was funded by Global Challenges Research Fund via the University of Plymouth and further supported by the Newton Fund: Natural Environment Research Council (grant no. NE/S013245/1) and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Tecnológica (grant no. 010-2019-Fondecyt).

Review statement

This paper was edited by Jenna Sutherland and reviewed by Fabian Drenkhan, Jacob Hileman, and Timothy Norris.


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Short summary
The Nuestro Rio project (2021–22) developed a digital app to collect local perspectives on water quality in the Santa River basin, Peru. Here we share four key lessons from the project, discussing the importance and challenges of engaging local participants, the use of technology for data collection, and the need to integrate local perspectives with scientific observations. This article provides insights for researchers considering developing similar technological tools for environmental issues.
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