There is a wetland at Shea O’Connor Combined School.
Many years ago, the staff thought that this was just a damp and annoying problem, but once they learned that it was a wetland – an important ecosystem for filtering water – they began to celebrate this great teaching resource and, on 2 February, marked World Wetlands Day to honor it.
Shea O’Connor has been an Eco-School since 2004.
Three years ago they joined the ‘Eco-Schools for Ecosystems’ project by committing to rehabilitate their wetland area, which has made a big difference. Last year, on World Wetlands Day, the school enviro-club (90 learners) removed invasive alien plants (mainly willow and canna) and opening flow paths in the compacted footpath to reinstate a state which is closer to the previous hydrology. This spread of water caused a die back of kikuyu to allow original wetland plants to reappear.
Antonia Mkhabela, vice principal of Shea O’Connor, is particularly passionate about it. “We use this wetland as a resource for teaching biodiversity and the human impact on water quality in Life Sciences. In our Natural Science classes we use it to teach about water sources, do miniSASS, turbidity tests and water filtration exercises. It is perfect for Business Studies lessons too on the economic use of wetland plants for crafts, fishing and tourism. We focus on the medicinal and cultural uses of wetland species in Social Sciences and use the quadrat method to count the plants in Maths.” Antonia intends that learners develop a sense of appreciation and respect for wetlands and their immense benefit to humans and other species.
On Friday, during assembly, Grade 8 learners, Ayanda Shabalala and Nzwakazi Mabaso, introduced World Wetlands Day. Particularly letting everyone know about the useful plants found in wetlands – like Intebe (Arum lily), uMhlanga (reeds), incema (Juncus kraussii) used for amacansi (mats) and ugobho (Gunnera perpensa) which is traditionally used to ease childbirth. “Many insects and animals depend on wetlands” said Nzwakazi, while Ayanda added, “wetlands provide many ecosystems services for free and also generate income through bird watching, fishing and tourism.”
When it was time for the activities, Principal Nicholas Nxumalo welcomed visiting learners from Bruntville Primary and Kings School and told everyone that Shea O’Connor was really proud to have this wetland in the school grounds.
Samson Phakathi, Senior Field Officer with the EWT Threatened Grassland Species Programme, told the learners how his conservation journey began while herding cows along the outskirts of the Wakkerstroom wetland. This wetland is world renowned for its abundance of birds including the White-winged Flufftail – a Critically Endangered bird which is totally dependent on healthy wetland ecosystems for its survival.
“As youngsters we were discouraged from paddling in the wetland as the local community believed that there was a dangerous bull in the wetland. After matric, I sought to confront the perceived wetland bull and, to my surprise, I discovered from the late Mr. Ken Newman (a famous Ornithologist) that the perceived wetland bull was a tiny White-winged Flufftail – whose call resembles that of a bull!”
From that moment, Sam saw a need to bridge the information gap about biodiversity conservation in communities and has spent the past eighteen years doing just this. Sam believes that it is critically important that we all join hands in whatever way possible to highlight the threats that are facing wetlands and grasslands ecosystems and we should refuse to see them dwindling. South Africa is a dry country, so if wetlands are not valued and looked after we run a risk of suffering from the consequences of a water shortage. It is not too late to do something, and that has to start with each and every one of us. “I believe we are at a cross roads: we have to choose – either we continue to disregard wetlands, treating them as waste lands and suffer the consequences of water shortages, or act decisively to safeguard these important water storage and purification systems. I believe that history will judge us based on individual decisions that we take at this very moment. The ball is in your hands – our future environmental champions.”
In the school grounds, activity stands were set up – each focussing on a different aspect of wetlands.
First, learners sploshed into the wetland to identify and remove alien plants under Antonia Mkhabela and Smanga Dhlamini’s guidance. There were lots of thistles, Verbena bonariensis and a few cannas.
Christine Hugo of WESSA Eco-Schools ran a poster making activity that focussed on this rehabilitated wetland vegetation. Learners discussed the benefits of wetland vegetation and gathered plants to to make posters using a maximum of 15 words to explain them.
Everyone loved the activity facilitated by Eidin Griffin from Kings School, which began with a quick group dance before discussing various types of soil – from clay to sand and inspecting them closely for organic matter. Soil types and the presence of ‘mottles’ indicate the boundaries of a wetland.
With Darryn Tucker of MMEP, learners made models of a wetland filter to demonstrate how a wetland uses biotic and abiotic properties (sand, stones and plants) to slow the flow and clean the water.
The KZNCF stall manned by Nonduduzo Khoza, Lindelani Mafu and Ryan Ferguson discussed the importance of wetlands as habitats for cranes. Most species of crane are dependent on wetlands and require large areas of open space. Some species nest in wetlands but move their chicks up onto grasslands to feed (while returning to wetlands at night), whereas others remain in wetlands for the entirety of the breeding season. With the destruction of these habitats, for agriculture, the birds have been affected by human activities and most are classified as threatened, to critically endangered. The Wattled Crane is in danger of extinction, with only 260 birds remaining in the wild.
Phumelele Mhlaba, a crafter from Bruntville, brought along beautiful baskets and other items created from the reeds and rushes that grown in the wetlands nearby. “I learnt these skills from my grandmother and now I run a programme in Bruntville to teach young people how to weave.”
Christine Hugo concludes: “It’s encouraging to attend such a big event at Shea O’Connor this year and I am thrilled that we have so many partners participating in the celebration. Shea O’Connor truly has done a great job of wetland rehabilitation by clearing aliens, encouraging more appropriate indigenous vegetation to return and therefore re-creating a healthier wetland ecosystem.”
Recently, the Shea O’Connor Enviro-Club signed up to the Water Explorer programme. Chairperson Siphesihle Mnchunu is excited about doing the challenges as he is sure that his school will do them well.
The Department of Agriculture provided lunch for the whole school and the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs supplied wetland posters and tools and seeds for the school garden.
The children from Bruntville Primary chatted excitedly about what they had learned all the way home. “They were especially interested to learn about the impact on flooding and the anaerobic plants.” reported Gregory Hadebe, Social Science teacher.
We love our Wetland!