In today’s ever expanding need for sustainable development to cater for exponential increases in population numbers, it has become critically important for developers and citizens alike to become more cognisant of their impacts on environmental resources. One of the most important resources being water particularly in a South African context.

The South African climate is generally characterised as a relatively dry sub-tropical climate with an approximate average annual rainfall of 450 millimetres (mm) which is well below the global average of around 860mm. The United Nations (2011) describes South Africa as a water scarce country with extremely limited aquatic resources. This makes it of pivotal importance that developers and citizens limit their impact on the country’s water resources. This also calls for robust and meaningful scientific means of assessing and monitoring our impact on receiving water resources.

One of these methods is the South African Scoring System (SASS) which was initially developed by FM Chutter in 1994. Over the years, there have been several updates and refinements to the protocol. The latest being SASS Version 5 (SASS5) by Dickens and Graham in 2002. The improvements made to the SASS have been recognised and accredited by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). The SASS5 provides a strict methodology which requires accreditation which needs to be renewed every three (3) years. This ensures that all SASS5 assessments are being conducted in a similar or identical manner.

Essentially, the SASS5 protocol determines the Ecological Condition or EC of an aquatic resource by using aquatic macroinvertebrates as a response indicator. Through many years of research, macroinvertebrates have been assigned pollution sensitivity scores ranging from 1 to 15, where 1 represents pollution tolerant species and 15 represents pollution sensitive species. Under perfect conditions, the following aquatic biotopes or habitats should be sampled when collecting a macroinvertebrate sample: Stones, Vegetation and Gravel, Sand and Mud.

As listed by Dickens and Graham (2002) the SASS5 protocol is a rapid means of determining the following:

  1. The EC of river
  2. The spatial and temporal trends in EC of a river
  3. Assessing emerging problems.
  4. Setting objectives for rivers.
  5. Assessing the impact of developments.
  6. Predicting changes in the ecosystems due to developments.
  7. Contribution to the determination of the Ecological Reserve.
A baseline or once-off SASS5 assessment provides very limited results. Generally, the baseline assessment will recommend that a biomonitoring programme be implemented which requires regular follow-up assessments, generally twice in a year (one assessment during the dry/winter period and one assessment during the wet/summer period). The biomonitoring programme will also suggest that one (1) upstream point and one (1) downstream point be assessed with the proposed development between the two aforementioned points. The upstream points serve as a ‘control point’ against which to compare the results obtained at the downstream point. If significant differences in EC between the two points are calculated, then it could be assumed that the development is impacting on the receiving watercourse.

The SASS5 protocol also seeks to empower citizens who have no prior experience in river health monitoring through the MiniSASS tool. MiniSASS is a simplified version of the more robust SASS5 protocol and can be used by anyone to monitor river health. . It was developed as a very simple technique, which can be used by anyone, to measure the health of rivers (Taylor et al, 2022). The primary aim of MiniSASS was to enable people to contribute to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG Target 6.b, ‘Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management’ (Taylor et al, 2022).

MiniSASS entails the collection of a sample of macroinvertebrates from a natural river or stream. The macroinvertebrates are subsequently identified down to order or group level unlike SASS5 which requires identification down to family level. Based on the predetermined sensitivity scale of each group, the user can calculate a River Health Index which classifies the EC of the river between five (5) categories from ‘natural’ to ‘very poor’ (Tyler et al, 2022). The results can then be uploaded to the MiniSASS project which can be found at These results are then captured and plotted on a map and are continuously updated as more and more people upload results.

From the above, it is evident that the SASS5 and MiniSASS protocols provide both specialists and citizens alike the power to make a difference in monitoring water quality and identifying trends and possible sources.

Dickens, C. & M. Graham, 2002. South African Scoring System (SASS) Version 5, rapid assessment method for rivers. African Journal of Aquatic Science 27: 1–10.
Taylor, J., Graham, M., Louw, A., Lepheana, A., Madikizela, B., Dickens, C., Chapman., D. & Warner, S. 2022. Social change in innovations, citizen science, miniSASS and the SDGs. Official Journal of World Water Council 24 (5): 708-717.
United Nations (2021) Water Development in South Africa. UN-Water International Conference. Zaragoza, Spain. 3-5 October.
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