Eco-Schools for Ecosystems in South Africa

Our dwindling ecosystems require conservation to secure species existence and intact green infrastructure. In many instances rehabilitation is needed both within and outside of protected areas. Some WESSA Eco-Schools have been working towards this goal in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Twenty Eco-Schools around the province were identified in 2015 to work on ecosystem monitoring, conservation and where possible rehabilitation projects.

For the past three years these schools have been supported as part of the ‘Eco-Schools for Ecosystems’ project made possible with financial backing from the RMB Fund. This project includes schools in the KZN Midlands working on wetland and grassland conservation, schools in Durban doing river monitoring, and a few schools bordering Mozambique, in northern Zululand in the Ndumo Game Reserve buffer zone who are conserving savanna habitat and biodiversity.

A case study of Shea O’Connor Combined School

Shea O’Connor Combined School in the KZN Midlands town of Nottingham Road is a good case in point. This school is a long-standing Eco-School in South Africa having first registered in 2004. They decided to take on the challenge of rehabilitating a highly transformed wetland area within their school grounds. It is estimated that over 50 % of South Africa’s wetlands have been destroyed (Kotze et al., 1995). Of the remaining wetlands, 48 % are classified as Critically Endangered (Nel et al., 2011) meaning that they are at great risk of being lost too.

Wetlands’ ability to provide free ecosystem services has resulted in wetlands being increasingly recognised for their economic value to civilization (de Groot et al., 2002). Some of these services include maintenance of the water table, groundwater aquifer recharge, water purification, nutrient and sediment retention, erosion control, flood prevention or attenuation, habitat provision, carbon sequestration and climate stabilisation. The Eco-club learners adopted a motto to ‘think global and act local’ and that is precisely what they have done these past few years. They decided to choose the theme ”Biodiversity & Nature” which has an action component project to implement the seven Eco-School steps.

Lower wetland area in June 2015 right before the fence was erected showing short cuts to the original toilet blocks, as well as invasive alien plants.

The challenge

To begin with the learners carried out a wetland audit or environmental review at the project onset to identify problems in the portion of wetland situated within the school grounds. They found wetland hydrology within the school boundaries to be highly altered from its natural state.  Past earthworks had created a footpath across the wetland for learners to reach the toilets. This compacted footpath essentially functions as a small dam wall hindering water from further up the catchment spreading evenly throughout the school’s wetland area and essentially drying out sections of the original wetland. The water exerts pressure on the compacted footpath. Water is directed via a shallow drainage system towards the lowest lying area of the wetland, away from the toilets. As the planned footpath wasn’t the shortest route to the toilets learners started creating their own short cut paths into the wetland further compacting the area. Fortunately, during the past three years the school received an upgrade to their toilet blocks but the new toilets were still situated across the wetland away from the other school buildings.

A vegetation survey revealed that the indigenous vegetation was dominated by sedge and grass species which are tolerant of regular intensive disturbance or indicative of historic disturbance (D. Walters, Wetland Ecologist, pers. comm., 2016). A variety of invasive alien plants such as willow trees (Salix sp.), American bramble (Rubus cuneifolius), Indian shot (Canna indica) and kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum) had taken root in the wetland and were spreading.

Lower wetland area in November 2017 shows overgrown paths and rich biodiversity due to improved wetland hydrology, a winter burn regime and good spring rains.

Actions for change

The first step in the rehabilitation process was to plug the drain to alleviate the pressure on the channel and reinstate the natural hydrology. Secondly, the Eco-club learners wrote letters to request a donation of fencing materials to allow the cross-cutting paths through the wetland to revegetate and encourage learners to stick to one footpath when accessing the toilets. The Midlands Meander Education Project responded to the call and learners erected the fence and thus paved the way for rehabilitation of paths in the lower wetland area.

By the end of 2016, the use of the drain had been reduced and the wetland was recovering. However, although the drain had been blocked in places, it was still effective in reducing natural flooding over the wetland surface (D. Walters, Wetland Ecologist, pers. comm., 2016). The compacted footpath still forced water downstream of the wetland and applied pressure on the drain plugs instead of storing the water as wetlands normally do. On World Wetland Day 2017, learners, two teachers (Ms A. T. Mkhabela and Mr S. S. Dhlamini) and WESSA attempted to rectify the situation by opening flow paths between stepping stones within the compacted footpath. This allowed water to spread more evenly across the wetland and reduced the pressure on the blocked drain. One of the positive side effects of the restored hydrology over much of the wetland surface has been the die back of kikuyu, an invasive grass which evidently dislikes having wet feet.

A lesson on alien invasive plants and their threat to ecosystems and biodiversity in early 2016 was the start of an extensive ’fight the invasives’ campaign at the Shea O’Connor wetland site. RMB funding permitted the purchase of necessary tools for this operation which remain at the school for continual alien clearing. Learners are mechanically rather than chemically controlling Canna indica by digging up the plant’s rhizomatous root system to stop the spread. Dug up plants are moved to a location away from the wetland where they are left to dry out. This project is a long-term intervention, as it is difficult to remove the rhizomes completely and even a small rhizome will regrow. Another alien invasive plant, the willow tree, despite regular cut and fell operations persisted on coppicing and growing into unmanageable bushes. Eventually during the winter of 2017, the school hired labourers to dig up the root systems and completely remove the willows.

Wetlands in the Grassland biome of South Africa, as found in the KZN Midlands, evolved with fire. Fire serves to maintain the vegetation diversity of wetlands (Kotze, 2010). After excluding fire from the school wetland for six years, it was decided to do a controlled winter burn in 2017. The fire consumed moribund (dead) vegetation, killed encroaching woody species and broke the dormancy of indigenous seeds stored in the soil so that a diversity of plants could grow. The fire also burnt back the invasive American bramble which made it possible to access and remove the roots with physical effort.  Besides greater plant diversity, learners have also noticed more birds frequenting the recovered wetland area. A few learners visited the KZN Crane Foundation located in the neighbourhood and a visit to the school wetland by one of South Africa’s three threatened crane species would be greatly welcomed.

Learners playing with pebbles in one of the flow paths created during World Wetland Day 2017.

Towards a sustainable future

Once you truly understand the water cycle, you realise that the water we use today is the water our ancestors used. Thus, the water we pollute today is the water we leave behind for our children and grandchildren. Wetlands freely store and clean freshwater resources but only if we respect their function by controlling invasive alien plants, not diverting water, dumping rubble and other waste, driving or walking through them or polluting them.

Nelson Mandela said, ”Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Apart from the obvious freshwater benefits, a healthy wetland ecosystem also offers many opportunities for teaching and learning. Lessons can range from Natural Science to Maths (recording and graphing monitoring data), as well as Creative Arts and History (indigenous uses of wetland resources). The Shea O’Connor case study, clearly shows youth that are knowledgeable, aware and considerate citizens. As a result, learners at this school are engaged and ready to get their hands dirty and make a difference and be the change we all want to see. It started with a school taking on the responsibility of managing and rehabilitating a small wetland area on their school grounds.

Jane Goodall believes, ”What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” The Eco-Schools Programme captures the spirit of these two great leaders by focusing on quality education and encouraging schools to act for positive change. Conservation and rehabilitation of ecosystems is a vital part of sustained livelihoods, so the more people we can mobilise in caring for the Earth and working for ecosystems, the better it will be for our children and those that follow them.

By Christine D. Hugo

Photos: A. T. Mkhabela, C. D. Hugo,

More information: Christine D. Hugo, Project Coordinator: WESSA Schools Programme, christine.hugo(at)wessa.co.za

Even readers of this magazine can make a difference by encouraging local schools to register with Eco-Schools and be part of this global grassroots movement: Contact the Eco-Schools Programme Manager, Delana Eksteen, on her cell: 066 302 4584 or email: delana(at)wessa.co.za for further details.

References

De Groot RS, Wilson MA, & Boumans RMJ. 2002. ”A typology for the classification, description and valuation of ecosystem functions, goods and services.” Ecological Economics 41: 393–408.

Kotze DC. 2010. Fire on the water: a review of the effect of burning on wetlands. Unpublished report submitted to the Mondi Wetlands Programme, Linden.

Kotze DC, Breen CM, & Quinn N. 1995. ”Wetland losses in South Africa.” In: Cowan GI (ed.): Wetlands of South Africa. Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Pretoria.

Nel JL, Murray KM, Maherry AM, Petersen CP, Roux DJ, Driver A, Hill L, Van Deventer H, Funke N, Swartz ER, Smith-Adao LB, Mbona N, Downsborough L, & Nienaber S. 2011. ”Technical report for the national freshwater ecosystem priority areas project.” WRC Report No. 1801/2/11, Water Research Commission, Pretoria.