Dr. Jeremy Shelton is the founder of Living Labs and a scientist at the Freshwater Research Centre of the University of Cape Town. Jeremy is an expert in the ecology of freshwater fish, the relationships between organisms in an ecosystem and the effects of invasive species on aquatic systems. He has a strong experimental background, and is putting that to use by educating the next generation about the importance and fragility of these systems.

As a freshwater biologist working to conserve river ecosystems in and around Cape Town, South Africa, I am often asked the simple yet pertinent question: why do our rivers matter? The answer to this question is important, because we will care for (conserve) our rivers only if we appreciate them, and will appreciate them only if we understand what our rivers do for us! So, I embarked on a quest to understand more about whether and why our rivers really matter, and here is what I learned.

Diving with Breede River redfin (Pseudobarbus burchelli). Image courtesy of Steve Benjamin, Animal Ocean.

First and foremost, rivers are our primary source of safe, clean drinking water. Not all that long ago, humans drank directly from the rivers that crisscross our landscapes, and many South Africans still do. Today though, the majority of South Africans get their drinking water by turning on a tap, but while we may not realise it, this water comes from rivers too.

Image courtesy of Alexia Webster.

Think of the Theewaterskloof Dam (close to the town of Villiersdorp) that supplies most of the City of Cape Town’s drinking water – well that dam is fed by a handful of rivers without which the dam would cease to exist and our taps would run dry.

These small tributaries in the Hottentots Holland are the lifeblood of Theewaterskloof Dam, but are often overlooked as part of our vital biosphere. Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

In addition to drinking, we also use water from supply dams like Theewaterskloof daily for sanitation and general use around the house. Moreover, our rivers also fuel large-scale water-dependent industries across South Africa, including crop and livestock agriculture. Indeed, without water from our rivers, irrigation systems would collapse, crops would perish and we would go hungry! Rivers are also increasingly being used to generate much-needed electricity through hydropower, for example the Steenbras Power Station above Sir Lowry’s Pass outside of Cape Town.

Water is continuously abstracted from small rivers like this for irrigation in the Cape. Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

Stepping away from human uses, rivers also provide essential habitat for aquatic biodiversity like fish, frogs, otters, bugs, plants and even algae! South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region (which largely overlaps with the Western Cape Province) is one of 35 Global Biodiversity Hotspots – places with exceptional levels of unique species, but also where human pressures on these species are unacceptably high.

Jeremy examines a specimen of Cape galaxias (Galaxias zebratus). Image courtesy of Alexia Webster.

As a signatory of the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is our responsibility to look after our plants and animals to the best of our ability and that begins with protecting their habitats, and in this case our rivers and their water.

Breede River redfin (Pseudobarbus burchelli). Image courtesy of Steve Benjamin, Animal Ocean.

But there is more to rivers than the services and habitats that they provide – something more subtle that recent research suggests may positively influence our psychology and even our physiology. Rivers have always been the lifeblood flowing through the landscapes in which our species has evolved, and even the sound of running water can have a therapeutic effect on us. We are drawn to them and they impart on us a sense of well-being that some of you reading this may be able to attest to.

Image courtesy of Bruce Paxton, Freshwater Research Centre.

Despite their many values, rivers rank among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet. Our country’s water demands are so high that many once-perennial rivers now run dry, and others have become polluted and modified to the point where they can no longer be considered living ecosystems. Allowing our rivers to become degraded is both economically and environmentally undesirable and irresponsible, if we consider the valuable goods, services and experiences that healthy rivers provide.

Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

The first step toward conserving our rivers is to cultivate a new, nation-wide appreciation for all that healthy rivers (and healthy ecosystems in general) do for us. Living Labs, the outdoor education programme of the Freshwater Research Centre, is a positive reaction to the global problem of growing disconnect between young people and nature. A reaction based on the premise that meaningful relationships between us and our environment are the strongest foundation for committed conservation of the vulnerable but valuable ecosystems and biodiversity with which we share this planet.

Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

In South Africa, opportunities for young people to connect with nature are becoming increasingly scarce, and Living Labs strives to work with partner organisations like the Two Oceans Aquarium and others to facilitate outdoor learning experiences that complement classroom lessons, and thereby provide opportunities for our youth to develop meaningful relationships with nature.

Cape galaxias (Galaxias zebratus). Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

On the one hand the programme exposes learners to the wonders and values of healthy ecosystems, and thereby facilitates meaningful relationships between young people and their environment. On the other, it provides an opportunity to learn, hands on, about science through real-life river-health assessments, which contribute valuable and reliable information that can be used by managers to better conserve our precious river ecosystems – a unique feature that sets the programme apart from other environmental education initiatives.

Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

The assessments utilise an established biomonitoring tool called miniSASS which estimates the health of a river based on the presence or absence of different types of fascinating river-dwelling bugs.

A water scorpion (Order: Hemiptera, Family: Nepidae). Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

The programme is starting small and local, with an initial focus on schools and rivers in and around Cape Town, but plans to gradually expand to throughout the Western Cape Province and potentially beyond. Since its launch on 22 March 2017 on World Water Day, Living Labs has reached over 500 learners from twenty schools and counting.  

Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

Support our waters

The Two Oceans Aquarium encourages everyone to appreciate our waters - from headwaters in the Hottentots Holland mountains to the oceans around the Cape, water is connected. It is one system, one ocean. What you do to our rivers, you do to our oceans.

Visit the Two Oceans Aquarium's freshwater fishes in our Penguin Exhibit, brought to you by Old Mutual Finance, to learn more about the vital role of this ecosystem, and get in touch with Living Labs to find out how you can get involved.

Image courtesy of Bruce Paxton, Freshwater Research Centre.
Clanwilliam yellowfish (Labeobarbus seeberi) and Clanwilliam sawfin (Pseudobarbus serra). Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.
Cased caddisflies grazing on the stream bed. Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

A dragonfly larva lying in wait . Image courtesy of Jeremy Shelton, Living Labs.

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