The Water Explorer programme is a two-year collaboration between the UK NGO Global Action Plan (GAP) and the international banking firm HSBC that aims to engage learners in eleven countries around the world in understanding how water affects lives, and in taking practical action to protect and save water in their schools and communities. WESSA (the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) is proud to be the implementation partner for this project in South Africa.
The Water Explorer Programme is an online, fun, inspiring and educational programme that empowers students to lead joint action on water issues. Schools earn points as they complete a variety of water challenges. Through their efforts to manage their water resources more wisely they stand to win many appropriate prizes that will assist them further in achieving their water goals. Each year every participating country selects their top five schools, one of which is nominated as the National Winner. The top five South African schools selected this year were Danville Park Girls High and Wyebank Secondary in Durban, Scottsville Primary in Pietermaritzburg, John Wesley Primary in Eshowe, and The Birches Pre-Primary in Pinetown. All of the selected schools presented their water saving projects at the awards event.
The winning school received a Water Explorer Tap trophy and R15,000 towards their eco-projects, while the four runner-up teams were each awarded R5,000 towards their projects.
Danville Park Girls High School faced tough competition but impressed the judges with the way the whole school participated across a number of Water Explorer challenges. These included a massive paper saving drive that they undertook after they learned about the huge water footprint associated with paper production: The 198,000 sheets of paper used by the school each year equates to 1,980,000 litres of water. Subsequently they have gone digital wherever possible and have improved their paper recycling drives through better communications in the school and running inter-class competitions to save paper.
Wyebank Secondary School highlighted how important it is to locate leaks in the water supply system. Through examining their water bill and usage they were able to identify and stop illegal connections into their school’s water system. As a result they have reduced their water ‘wastage’ and water bill by more than half. Another initiative they have introduced at the school is a “Bring a Bottle (BAB) to School” campaign aimed at encouraging the 1,200 learners to save water by not drinking from running taps. Their diverse water projects also extended to clearing all of the water-thirsty invasive alien plant species from their grounds.
The Birches Pre-Primary School’s young Dragonfly Water Explorers’ team members, aged 3 to 6 years, invested in collecting grey water as their Water Explorer project. Over the past six weeks learners have brought 2 litre bottles of grey water to school. For each bottle brought in learners earn a sticker credit and after achieving 20 stickers (40 litres) they receive a water bracelet. Through this initiative they have collected over 5,000 litres of water which has been used for flushing school toilets and for watering their indigenous gardens and nursery. This initiative demonstrated simple and effective ways to make massive water savings through reusing water. It has been encouraging to see how the learners’ families have adopted this practice at home and it has even inspired Water Explorer teams in countries as far afield as Italy and Spain who are also experiencing drought conditions.
WESSA will be implementing the Water Explorer programme for a second year in South Africa, providing an important and engaging response for schools to address the serious water scarcity challenges that our country is experiencing. Interested schools can register for free at www.waterexplorer.org
Blue Flag is an international annual award given to beaches that meet a standard of excellence in the areas of safety, amenities, cleanliness, environmental information and environmental management. In South Africa, the Blue Flag programme is managed by WESSA and participating local authorities under the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Coastcare initiative. The strict criteria of the programme – in the areas of safety, amenities, cleanliness, environmental information and environmental management – are set by the international coordinators of the Blue Flag campaign in Europe, the FEE (Foundation for Environmental Education). South Africa was the first country outside Europe to be granted Blue Flag accreditation for its beaches. A remarkable 24 beaches have been on the programme for more than five consecutive years, and two of these have participated for all fifteen years that the programme has been running in the country.
According to the World Tourism Organization, the international Blue Flag, which is now in its 25th year of operation, is the most well-known and oldest eco-label of its kind. Currently, more than 40 countries across Europe, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada and the Caribbean are participating in the programme and interest in the programme continues to grow with almost 4,000 Blue Flag beaches and marinas around the world.
High water pollution levels and exceptionally low flows have forced extreme swimmers Andrew Chin and Henko Roukema to abandon their quest to swim the length of the Berg River. They had set off on Monday 19 October on an initiative to heighten awareness around the state of our rivers by swimming the Berg from source to sea, but the polluted water caused such illness in the team that they were forced to call off the swim after two-thirds completion.
This unfortunate outcome does, however, reinforce the central message of their “Rivers for Life” campaign, which is that our country’s rivers are in a severe state of deterioration. It is hoped that their efforts will stimulate the critical discussion and action required by the relevant authorities, landowners, affected communities and the general public to save our country’s vital water resources.
While the swimmers had anticipated the many challenges that they would face along the way, even they were surprised by the degraded state of the river caused by sewerage overflows and other pollution sources. After just a couple of days on the river one of the swimmers fell ill due to exposure to the polluted water, and so did both members of their support team who were also exposed to the water while following them in a kayak and backup vehicle.
After hiking to the source of the Berg River at Assegaaibosch Kloof, the swimmers followed the course of the river for six days and completed 135km of the river’s 200km length. Of this distance only 21km were swum while 23km were paddled and the rest walked in often challenging conditions. Numerous sections of the river were impassable due to being blocked by artificial islands made of accumulated plastic waste, while tree branches and shallow water often made swimming impossible and at one point the river also ran completely dry. The catchment had a very dry winter this year resulting in dam and river levels being particularly low. Low water levels also decrease the river’s natural assimilative capacity in terms of pollution.
The swimmers observed vagrants living under almost every bridge in Paarl, and many sections where the river is being used as a dump site. They witnessed huge amounts of water being pumped out of the river and counted more than 50 irrigation pipes leaving the river in one 7km section below Wellington. They were exposed to leeches in the water several occasions, and were extremely concerned to see children playing in the polluted river where it flows past a local township.
Two of the few positive observations were seeing extensive clearing of alien vegetation on the river banks and the Department of Agriculture spraying weeds on one section of the river. The local farmers that they encountered along the way were generally very supportive of the swimmers’ initiative.
The Berg River swim was the second event of the “Rivers for Life” extreme swimming challenge that was launched by Capetonian Andrew Chin in January 2015. The challenge involves a small group of athletes that is attempting over a three year period to swim a distance of 100 to 350km in a major river in each of South Africa’s nine provinces. The first swim took place in the Wilge River in the Free State in January 2015, during which Andrew Chin and Toks Viviers swam 200km over a period of 10 days. The pair plan to take to the water again early in the new year to continue the challenge on a major river in one of South Africa’s other provinces.
WESSA strongly supports this initiative, which is in line with the organisation’s aim to promote public participation in caring for the earth. One of the key objectives of WESSA’s water programme is to ensure the health of strategic water catchments and rivers through the monitoring and reporting of the state of our country’s water resources.
Prior to the event WESSA equipped the swimmers with the skills required to conduct river health tests using the popular miniSASS citizen science tool, which is used to calculate a river health index based on the collection and identification of invertebrates (small aquatic insects) in a water sample. The swimmers collected data using this tool along the stretch of the Berg River that they completed and the results will be uploaded to the www.minisass.org Google Earth map and database, where they will contribute to building a picture of the health of South Africa’s rivers.
The swimmers were supported on the Berg River swim by a number of partners and sponsors including AEE South Africa, Awesome South Africans, Aqua 4 Life, Healing Earth Africa, Speedo, Travel with Flair (Cape Town) and WESSA.
WESSA (the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) is a dynamic South African environmental NGO with a mission to implement high impact environmental and conservation projects that promote public participation in caring for the Earth.
WESSA has a remarkable history of almost 90 years and a proud track record of enabling individuals and organisations to use natural resources sustainably and effectively, through our strategic partnerships. We are driven by the critical focus areas of our work which include the international eco-labels of Eco-Schools and Blue Flag, environmental training, sustainable energy, and life-supporting eco-systems such as water and biodiversity.
WESSA (the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa), is one of the country’s oldest and largest independent non-government environmental organisations. Although WESSA can trace its origins right back to 1883 with the formation of the Natal Game Protection Association, the organisation has been in continuous existence since 11 March 1926, when a number of local and provincial conservation organisations were dissolved to make way for a new national body. The main reasons for this new organisation were to create a powerful focus for public opinion, to force the government of the day to create a National Parks Board (now known as SANParks), to ensure the proclamation of Kruger National Park, and to advocate the formation of other national parks in South Africa.
Although the organisation has changed its name and its focus of attention several times over the years, one very important aspect of WESSA’s mission that has remained unchanged throughout its history is articulated in its logo “People Caring for the Earth”.
WESSA has been at the forefront of promoting public participation in caring for the Earth throughout its existence and its many achievements in this regard are well documented. The book “The Conservationists and the Killers” covers WESSA’s history for the period 1926 to 1980. A special “Diamond Jubilee” issue of WESSA’s then magazine, African Wildlife, was published in 1986. Most recently WESSA’s 85th anniversary publication “A celebration of 85 years of Caring for the Earth”, was compiled in 2011.