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A global Stream Assessment Scoring System (miniSASS)

​by Dr. Jim Taylor (

miniSASS is a simple tool which can be used by anyone to monitor the health of a river. By collecting a sample of macroinvertebrates (small animals) from the water, and depending on which groups are found, a measure of the general river health and water quality in that river can be determined.  Anyone can learn how to collect a miniSASS sample from a river. Once you have collected a sample you look for the different bug groups and score whether they were found.  The score then tells you the health class of the river, ranging across five categories from natural to very poor.  The results can be placed on a Google Earth platform ( for all to see and a mobile phone App is being developed to help this process.  Through miniSASS you can learn about rivers, monitor the water quality of rivers within your community, explore reasons why the water quality may not be as clean as everyone would like and, of course, take action to improve our precious water resources.

The Issue

In southern Africa water quality, quantity and equity is a serious problem.  It is now reaching crisis proportions because human impact is degrading water resources at an alarming rate.  Since it is a human created problem the solution must be with humans - people don’t fully understand how to access water and how to use it wisely – and droughts and water shortages make this worse.  In fact it is estimated that over 40% of all human diseases, in southern Africa, are carried through water.

People are learning through citizen science to understand the issues and take action to solve problems

The Stream Assessment Scoring System (miniSASS) is a remarkable approach that is helping address the problem.  By identifying just thirteen insects (actually macro-invertebrates), that live in streams and rivers, people can calculate a River Health Index so as to monitor their own water systems, for free!  Even a nine year old child, who is semi-literate in English, can apply this technique.

This form of water monitoring is known as biomonitoring and a River Health Index can be calculated from just 13 common water insects which have a range of sensitivity ratings.  Once anyone can recognise these insects, and a simple reference sheet is provided, they can calculate a River Health Index through miniSASS. 

Sharing data: Globally, live and for free!

The results can be taken further on the website. Once you have your results you can upload them on Google Earth as live data – and a coloured crab appears on the map which represents the score – a blue crab means a healthy stream while a red crab indicates a ‘modified or poor’ quality stream.   We are now researching and developing ‘line-of-site’ actions that can be adopted to improve the local river health index. 

Because the families of insects occur all over the world, and Google Earth is a global system, we have recently had people in Ethiopia, India, Zimbabwe, Australia and Canada uploading data on the miniSASS system.  It appears as though it can work in virtually any perennial river or stream in the world!

We are also developing a field-based mobile phone “app” to help with recording the site and identifying the insects (invertebrates).  Now that we have a system that is working we need support to share it more widely, teach people about it, and develop frameworks that provide guidance as to what actions people should take depending on the status of their local rivers and streams. The Beta version of the App is downloadable from

Please also see the article by Marc Graham in 'Environment' for more information. Click here.

South Africa