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Tamsyn Sherwill 
Learn about wetland and river health in Colbyn Wetland Nature Reserve, 7 February 2015

February 2nd is celebrated across the globe as World Wetlands Day, and marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands (also known as the Ramsar Convention) on 2 February 1971, in the city of Ramsar, Iran.

The theme for World Wetlands Day 2015 is ‘Wetlands for our Future’, which aims to involve and inspire the youth in protecting wetlands for the future of our planet and its people. In answering this call to action, the Water Research Commission (WRC), in collaboration with the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Department of Water and Sanitation, WESSA, WetRest, South African Wetland Society, City of Tshwane and Friends of Colbyn Valley, hosted an event on Saturday 7 February which offered local schoolchildren the opportunity to learn about aquatic ecosystem health in the Colbyn Wetland Nature Reserve, Pretoria.

‘Wetlands’ as the focus of the Ramsar Convention are defined very broadly and include a range of aquatic ecosystems, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, and with water that is static or flowing, brackish or fresh.  With this broad definition in mind World Wetlands Day celebrations in Colbyn Valley focused on both the Colbyn Valley Wetland and its downstream riverine outlet, the Hartbeesspruit. 

The event was attended by 75 children – activities included a ‘wetland awareness walk’ led by specialist guides, who demonstrated the different wetland zones by looking at various soil and vegetation markers; a ‘wetland basics’ course, in which the children applied principles of wetland structure and function to construct a simple wetland model using everyday materials; and a miniSASS biomonitoring exercise to assess the health of the Hartbeesspruit downstream of the Colbyn Wetland.  The miniSASS tool cannot be applied in the wetland itself as it is intended only for streams and rivers and is not designed for areas such as marshes or vleis with low flow or static water.

The miniSASS tool was derived from SASS, an aquatic biomonitoring tool that has been used in South Africa for over 30 years.  miniSASS is a low-cost, low-technology, environmental education and citizen science tool that uses only 13 aquatic macroinvertebrate groups (SASS uses over 90) to give an indication of the health of a river, ranging across five categories from natural to very poor.  Monitoring using miniSASS can thus identify water quality problems and raise ‘red flags’ as to possible pollution issues requiring investigation.

The Hartbeesspruit rises in the suburb of Menlo Park, and passes through the University of Pretoria sportsgrounds before entering the Colbyn Wetland Nature Reserve, where backflooding of the spruit, along with the contribution of groundwater, has created the Colbyn Valley Wetland.  Downstream of the wetland the Hartbeesspruit flows through the suburbs of Kilner Park and East Lynne and finally drains into the Roodeplaat Dam, a source of drinking water for Pretoria.  

The Colbyn Valley Wetland includes areas of peatland, estimated to be over 7000 years old. The wetland is vulnerable to a number of impacts due to its urban location, but remains a valuable biodiversity and water resource, as well as offering the residents of Pretoria a unique educational and recreational resource. The Colbyn Valley Wetland has received much attention in the press due to concerns over greater stormwater flow from increased development in Hatfield and a proposed park-and-ride facility mentioned in the Hatfield Spatial Development Framework.  More recently the wetland was the subject of public outcry when it was suggested that it may form part of a decision by the City of Tshwane to auction off certain areas of municipal land, but this has now been confirmed to apply to only a small section of land south of Stanza Bopape Street and located outside of the wetland and nature reserve.

The WRC's involvement in wetland conservation and education initiatives such as the above reflects the value of these ecosystems in providing essential natural infrastructure for managing the country's water resources. Wetlands provide significant economic, social and cultural benefits. They are important sites for biodiversity and for primary products such as pastures, and support recreational and tourist activities. They help reduce the impacts of storm damage and flooding, maintain good water quality in rivers, recharge groundwater and store carbon. 

For further information: Tamsyn Sherwill - email: tamsyns@wrc.org.za

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