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Learners discover the keys to river health


A moment of scientific discovery


What can we learn about the mighty Orange River from this tiny animal?


Learners identify tiny water invertebrates as keys to river health by means of miniSASS


Macroinvertebrates - sentinels of river health


Canoeist Brett Merchant informs farmers, community members and learners about effective ways of monitoring river health

By Omphile Khutsoane, Education Officer, SAEON Arid Lands Node


The second Rivertalk hosted by SAEON at the confluence of the Vaal and Orange rivers was attended by learners and educators from Bongani High School and Weslaan Secondary School in Douglas, as well as farmers, community members and scientists.

The riverside talks were presented by three canoeists of TriWaters*, who paddled 2 500 km across South Africa - from the source of the Vaal River, where they started on 16 January to the Orange River Mouth, where they arrived on 4 April. The talks featured interactive demonstrations aimed at schools, other guests and the media.

The canoeists, a South African, Franz Fuls, Australian, Brett Merchant and Canadian, Troy Glover, collected diatom samples for SAEON at 61 sites along the entire 2 500 km stretch as indicators of river health. These micro-algae allow the detection of water quality changes integrated over time and at a fine scale. Diatoms are sensitive to salinity, which is an increasing problem in the lower reaches of the Orange River.

Members of SAEON’s Arid Lands Node joined the canoeists on both occasions to inform the guests about river health and effective ways of monitoring it. Guests were introduced to miniSASS, a "light" version of the Stream Assessment Scoring System (SASS), which is used as a bio-monitoring tool to gauge river health by looking at tiny aquatic animals known as macroinvertebrates. MiniSASS is being promoted by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) for use by schools and communities across the country to assess the state of our river systems.

Citizen science can make a difference

The TriWaters team also informed guests about the role played by citizen science, where communities collect scientific data that can be valuable to scientists and managers alike, to ensure sustainable utilisation of natural resources. Learners interested in pursuing science as a career were excited to learn that citizen science could provide a stepping stone in that direction.

The learners made the most of this rare occasion, intently observing and identifying tiny water invertebrates as keys to the health of mighty rivers by means of miniSASS, and asking many questions. The learners and other participants were astonished when the TriWaters team of canoeists’ study revealed that the water in the Orange River is much healthier than in the Vaal River.

The manager of SAEON’s Arid Lands Node, Dr Joh Henschel, remarked that the Vaal actually stopped flowing altogether before the confluence, indicating that its water has been completely allocated, with none left for the downstream environment. Luckily the Orange River appears to be healthier, with water flowing all the way to the river mouth.

Although it turned out that the venue was no longer a confluence of rivers, the participants were excited to discover that science lies within the grasp of learners who are not only keen to gain new scientific knowledge, but also committed to using this towards furthering sustainable development. Hopefully their 'confluence of minds' can ensure that these rivers meet again at this confluence in the future.

A healthy future for our rivers?

The enthusiastic engagement of the TriWaters team gives hope that it will be possible for our rivers to have a healthy future, brimming with life, with people reaping the many crucial benefits of water, thanks to increased scientific knowledge, public awareness and sound natural resource management.

The samples now being collected by TriWaters will be analysed to determine if the water quality in the Vaal and Orange rivers has deteriorated over time and will also assist in identifying possible pollution sources. Such long-term environmental monitoring by SAEON is part of its efforts to track global change and local environmental changes across South Africa.

The talks were sponsored by the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation, GWK and Northern Cape Tourism.

* TriWaters: Three rivers meet at the confluence near Douglas: the Gariep coming in from the west, meets the Vaal coming in from the east, to continue as the Orange, which flows further westward through the arid wilderness of the southern Kalahari region and Namaqualand in the Northern Cape Province to meet with Namibia. From here it flows westward for 550 km, forming the international border between the province and Namibia's Karas Region.


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