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Water Research Day @ Phalaborwa

By Tony Swemmer and Joe Sibiya, SAEON Ndlovu Node

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Two learners are shown how to play a water management simulation game based on the Middle Olifants River catchment (Picture: Joe Sibiya)

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The simulation game teaches the budding scientists how to earn points by balancing water, energy, food and ecosystem in a community (Picture: Joe Sibiya)

The SAEON Ndlovu Node recently hosted an education outreach workshop focused on monitoring and managing freshwater resources.

The event was organised by researchers working on a large German-funded research project on the Olifants River in collaboration with South African National Parks (SANParks). Activities included a demonstration of water quality monitoring on-site by Thabo Mohlala (SAEON river technician), a demonstration of water testing in a mobile laboratory, and playing a water management computer simulation game based on the Middle Olifants River catchment.

The workshop ran over four days, and 20 secondary school learners and 15 technicians from the local water board attended.

Vutivi Albright Baloyi, a grade 11 learner (SAEON Kid) at Majeje High School wrote the following (unedited) report of his experiences at the workshop:

On 11 May 2015, we were invited to the Water Research Day at Phalaborwa. We were a group of ten grade 11 learners from different local schools in Phalaborwa. We were given the opportunity of meeting seven environmental specialists and learn more about water resources and management.

The purpose of the day was to teach us about river health monitoring using benthic macro-invertebrates as bio-indicators of change in water quality; this was based on well-developed indices known as the South African Scoring System (SASS5). Water quality sampling techniques were demonstrated to us as well as the educational simulation game Aqua Republica, developed by UNEP-DHI.

What we have learned

Early in the morning we were given the chance to watch a video about rivers and sampling. We learned that a river is divided into different habitats, but for macro-invertebrates we have three dominant ones, which are Sandy, Stone, and Grass and Muddy. Sandy habitat is dominated by sand underneath. Stone is dominated by rocks that act as obstacles to the flow of the river. Grass and mud habitat is composed of hydrophytes, algae and as well as mud.

We also learned that a river has sections of different water velocity. There is the slowest section, the moderate and the fastest, called rapid. Different fish and macro-invertebrates are known to prefer different habitats and water velocity to survive throughout their life stages. We also learned that the river has catchment whereby other rivers (tributaries) flow into the main stem river water meet and get into the river (this area is known as ‘confluence’).

Heading to the field

We went to the Selati River, which was located on a section downstream of the mines. There we were given the chance to put forward the techniques of sampling a river on our own, using several instruments such as a standardised SASS5 net, pH meters and also how to measure velocity of the water as well as water clarity using a water clarity tube.

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The Grade 11 SAEON Kids with the Ndlovu Node’s education officer, Joe Sibiya (left), SANParks’ Tercia Strydom (seated, right) and DHI’s Rolf Timmermann (standing, right) (Picture: Martie van der Westhuizen)

The first part of the research was the collection of invertebrates using a net. We found that in just a small part of the river there were about six species of invertebrates (worms, larvae and flies) including alien snails. We also collected six species of fish through electrically shocking the water.

The second part of sampling was determining the turbidity of the river, that is, how muddy the water is. The last part was (1) measuring the electrical conductivity of water, which indicates the level of salt in the water. The more the concentration of salt in the water, the higher is the electrical conductivity. (2) The oxygen concentration level of the river was approximately 20 %, which was found to be very low and not conducive for aquatic organisms. (3) The pH level was found to be an average of 8. (4) The average temperature of the river was 21 degrees.

We were then given the opportunity of asking questions about the research before heading back to the SAEON offices.

MOSA water management game

After lunch, we had a one-hour brief about the establishment of MOSA in South Africa. MOSA is the German-funded integrated Water Resources Management project in the Olifants River basin. It manages and monitors the middle part of the Olifants River and in May 2015, it was in Phalaborwa.

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The Grade 12 SAEON Kids with Joe Sibiya (back row, centre) and DHI’s Rolf Timmermann (back row, left) (Picture: Martie van der Westhuizen)

Then came the most exciting part of the day, when we played the simulation game in pairs. The game, MOSA Aqua Republica, made us aware of our water management abilities. In some ways, we learned how to balance water, energy, food and ecosystem in a community and earn points.

Our appreciation for the Water Day

We really appreciate the efforts taken to organise the Water Research Day in Phalaborwa. We learned a lot about water and the impacts that people and mines have on many precious lives in the water. We thank SAEON and its associate sponsors for the educational programme such as this.

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