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How to celebrate World Wetlands Day* when your wetlands have dried up

By Sue J. van Rensburg, Coordinator: SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node
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'Make Your Own Wetlands' competition championed by Malachite Specialist Services.

SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node is developing a long-term observation platform in the Maputoland coastal plain of northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

The key question driving this work is: What are the relative impacts of land-use, land management, weather and climate change on the water resources of the area?

Unlike SAEON’s Cathedral Peak site, much of the Maputoland coastal plain is groundwater dominated. Over the past decade concern regarding a perceived continuing drop in the groundwater table has been mounting. SAEON scientists are developing a programme to address key data requirements to enable better global change research in the area.

Wetlands and peatlands under threat

In the northern area, from Mbazwane (close to Sodwana Bay) to Manguzi/Kosi Bay in the north, lies the local municipality of uMhlabuyalingana, which means ‘the place that is flat’. The area is extremely rich in wetlands, many of which are very special peatlands.

The continued decline in the water table has left most of these wetlands dry and peatlands drying out. Last year this situation was aggravated by runaway fires on extreme “red” fire danger index days, which led to several peatlands in the system burning out.

Celebrating World Wetlands Day in the area

At the KwaZulu-Natal Wetland Forum, when the issue of where to hold Wetlands Day events in February of 2018 was discussed, I proposed hosting an event in this area to draw attention to the threat facing the uMhlabuyalingana wetlands and peatlands. The forum agreed that this area was deserving of such an event.

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SAEON technician Sipiwe Mfeka assessing burning peatland and retrieving data loggers.                                                                          

Aobakeer from SAEON, Kwazi from DAFF, Thuli from ASSET and Khulani from Working on Fire assisting learners with the time travel game (note teacher and marshals just as interested!)

Special event for learners

With the backing of the KwaZulu-Natal Wetland Forum, and given SAEON’s involvement in the area, we worked with co-host Isibusiso Esihle Science Discovery Centre (located close to Vazi Pans) to pull together various groups in the wetlands community to run a learner day event.

The purpose of the learner event was to teach youngsters from the local area more about the uniqueness of their local wetlands as well as the threats and challenges these wetlands face. As a science organisation, the SAEON team included a hefty dose of observation science awareness, change over time and map-reading skills.

The activities were designed to help the learners understand the value of these systems and the area surrounding them and explore opportunities for ecotourism. Five learners from ten schools were invited to participate, with the idea that they will take what they have learned back with them to their schools to host their own schools Wetland Day event on the official World Wetlands Day (2 February).

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Ntuthuko from the Isibusiso Esihle Science Discovery Centre (centre) assisted by Mlu from Liberty NPO (right) demonstrating how drying peat emits CO2, which contributes to climate change.

Kent from SAEON, Ryan from Eco-Pulse and Sifiiso from iSimangaliso Wetland Park explaining the map game to learners.        

As the day arrived, riots and strikes broke out in Maguzi, impacting on the transport arrangements for several of the schools. It was possible no one would come. Siphesihle Bhukosini, CEO of the science centre, worked her magic by arranging that learners close to the centre join in. A few schools arrived and community members and learners from the area happily participated in the open day learning initiatives.

A number of groups affiliated with the KwaZulu-Natal Wetland Forum joined in to make the day a resounding success. Representatives from the Endangered Wildlife Trust; Malachite Specialist Services; JG AfriKa; ASSET; Working on Fire; the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF); iSimangaliso Wetland Park; Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife; Liberty NPO; Eco-Pulse; Isibusiso Esihle Science Discovery Centre and of course SAEON staff and interns were all on board to host stations that informed the learners about different aspects of wetlands and the local area.

The day started with a drill demo from Working on Fire, after which we all tried to follow their example. It’s not as easy as it looks. Then we broke into teams, with each group of learners accompanied by two Working on Fire marshals and teachers to direct the round robin between stations. Everyone was keen to learn more.

There were six stations in total - one dealing with biodiversity, others demonstrating wetland functions and services as well as threats to wetlands (the learners all got to make their own wetlands). The time travel game (a game showing different types of earth observation from satellite, plane and ground photos) involved matching photo cards (from 2017) to pictures that were taken earlier on a board. This was designed to demonstrate how water levels in the area are dropping over time and what some of the consequences are.

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Jiba and Thabo from the Endangered Wildlife Trust with crane (stuffed) and frog (live) in tow to teach the learners about biodiversity in wetlands. Here they explain that blue cranes (our national bird) mate for life.

Rowena and Craig from Malachite Specialist Services, assisted by Adowa (independent wetlander), demonstrating how to make a wetland and how it cleans water.                                                           

The map game exposed learners to their broader area. Clues related to places, iconic local animals and fun activities were placed onto a large satellite map and the learners had to match photos to the clues (e.g. “happy hippos in Lake Sibayi”, “scientist measuring groundwater”, or “tourist watching birds”). What was clear from this game is that many of the learners had not travelled far from their home and had no idea that “the sea was so close”, had never seen or heard of a turtle and did not know Sibayi was a beautiful lake close to where they lived.

Another station cleverly incorporated the science of circuitry to demonstrate the impact of peatlands drying out, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, which makes the planet warmer (and the light bulb comes on indicating “warmer”). There was also a climate change game in which the leaners themselves got to demonstrate the concept. The Water Research Commission also kindly provided awareness materials for the event.

After a hearty lunch we were treated to a play by Working on Fire promoting the wise use of wetlands, done in a brilliant way that had everyone in stiches. Closing with messages of thanks to all, the learners who attended left with packages filled to the brim with materials to reconstruct their own games at their schools.

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Sue Janse van Rensburg, coordinator of SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node, addresses the learners with a message from the former Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, on the importance of education to enable a better future and the important role played by women in science.

Despite the initial fears that no one would be attending, we ended up with over 50 learners and an equal number of exhibitors. Fun was had by all and I believe those who were hosting the stations left enriched from sharing their experiences with the learners.

On behalf of SAEON, the KwaZulu-Natal Wetland Forum and Isibusiso Esihle Science Discovery Centre, a big thank you to all the individuals and organisations that made this day possible… and special. It opened not only minds, but hearts too.

* Celebrated for the first time in 1997, World Wetlands Day continues to raise awareness of the significance of these habitats to the planet, while providing an important platform from which to launch initiatives aimed at protecting and preserving these areas.

Isibusiso Esihle Science Discovery Centre The science centre was established through the vision of community member Siphesihle Bukhosini and her husband – Sibusiso, to address education challenges in the area. At many of the local schools, maths and science education is lacking. With wetlands on their doorstep, the aim was to use the science centre as a hub to stimulate science through using the wetlands as a living laboratory. With the wetlands now dry and burning, Siphesihle’s vision has morphed to addressing critical thinking challenges and working with school learners to promote an understanding of science in general, including an understanding of global change threats such as climate change and inappropriate land-use practices that may impact the water resources of the area.

 

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