Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 28 April 2010
The Rondevlei Nature Reserve, located about 20 kilometres outside of Cape Town, and learners from Sid G Rule Primary in Grassy Park are engaged in a collaborative conservation education project.
The project’s goal is twofold: the pupils learn about ecosystems, biodiversity and conservation, while helping to collect important environmental data that the City of Cape Town can use to assess water health throughout the municipal area.
It is also part of a bigger vision developed by Dr Mark Graham, aquatic ecologist and director of environmental consultancy Ground Truth, aimed at mobilising communities to better look after their rivers and other water resources.
“Due to increased utilisation of water sources, our rivers are more and more under pressure in terms of pollution. Our water quality shows fairly worrying statistics,” Graham said.
To protect water resources, municipalities usually implement a range of initiatives, such as improving their solid waste management and sewerage systems as well as investing in wetland rehabilitation and conversation. But without community involvement, water conservation schemes will never be completely successful, believes Graham.
He therefore came up with the idea of asking schools to adopt a section of a river that they monitor on a regular basis. The data the pupils collect could be fed to the water affairs department of the municipality in which the school is located.
If all schools would commit to testing a certain stretch of river, an entire river system could be monitored and this information could inform a municipality’s water management strategy, Graham suggests.
“Kids learn something and get directly involved in conserving the environment. It’s a great opportunity for behaviour change, much more effective then just saying ‘don’t litter’,” argued Graham. “The initiative builds up environmental champions at community level. It makes citizens realise what role they can play.”
Bronwen Foster, nature conservation officer at the Rondevlei Nature Reserve, which is managed by the City of Cape Town, agrees: “For the children, the project is an important platform for awareness. Most parents don’t expose their children to nature. But once the kids appreciate the environment, they think twice before they litter.”
Some school groups already practice community river health monitoring using the Mini South African Scoring System, or “Mini SASS”, which is a is a simplified method of measuring water quality and health that can be used by laypeople.
Based on the scientifically tried and tested SASS technique commonly applied by ecologists, Mini SASS doesn’t directly measure the contamination of the river as it is not a water test. Instead, it tests the sensitivity of various animals to water quality.
The children look for invertebrates in different habitats at a river site, collect insects in small nets in the water and rinse mud out of the net to find tiny bugs.
“It’s a low tech tool to test water quality in rural and urban areas that can be used by everyone. Through this simple method, you can get an accurate reading of the river. If the river is in reasonable condition, you should have several hundred individual insects in the sample,” said Graham.
In the Rondevlei Nature Reserve, the cooperation between schools and the City’s scientific department is still in its very early stages. It takes some time to gear the children up for environmental activism, Foster says.
“It would be a great idea for schools to each adopt a section of a river and collect data that could be used by the City,” she reckoned.
For now, the children are handed charts that help them to identify plants, birds, insects and small aquatic creatures. Enthusiastically, they climb up the watchtowers, take position in the viewing sheds and carefully walk among the reeds and along the water’s edge to find the animals they see on their charts.
“Based on these different elements of the ecosystem, they learn to assess its health by recognising the basic indicators that show that something is wrong with the water, mainly by noting what is not there, what is missing, like frogs, for example,” explained Foster.
The positive results of the nature conservation project are noticeable almost immediately. “If there is pollution in the water, what needs to happen?” Foster asks the group of 36 pupils at the end of the day’s expedition. “We have to do something about it!” the children shout without hesitation.
All of them seem keen to tell their friends and family about what they have learnt that day and implement some of this knowledge in their communities.
“We want the children to observe nature and see it in real life, so that they don’t only learn out of textbooks,” the primary school’s Grade 7 teacher Peter Botha said to illustrate the importance of the project. “They grow up to be more aware and pass on this information to their parents and so on. We are amazed at the amount of info they absorb.”
Botha says his pupils are now able to make the link between the pollution they observe in their communities with the impact this has on their immediate environment and nature conservation.
“I know now that when I litter at my home, it’s not good for the environment,” 12-year-old Caryn Adonis proudly shows off her newly acquired knowledge. The excursion has made a lasting impression on her. “I want to work here. It’s so cool,” she quipped.