Peatlands Expo Report

Members of the WCC schools’ education team presented an expo on precious peatlands as part of their environmental education program for Okkie Smuts primary school learners.

A total of seventy four grades 5, 6 and 7 learners came to find out more about Peatlands, their importance and where we find them around the world.

Sheraine van Wyk kick off the expo by explaining to the big group what peatlands are and how peat is formed. She also showed a photo of peatlands and talked about the special Palmiet plant we find in a peatland in the Western Cape.

Peatlands are a type of wetland which are critical for preventing and mitigating the effects of climate change, preserving biodiversity, minimizing flood risk, and ensuring safe drinking water. Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store.

Judy McFarlene explained Peatlands as a water sink and water source. She showed them how the peatland acts like a sponge and soaks up water efficiently. She also explained how a peatland is made up of layers upon layers of organic matter in an anaerobic environment using a homemade ‘bog in a bottle’. They all felt how spongey it felt and could observe that the decaying organic matter had not decomposed completely. She emphasized that it takes 1000s of years to make peat, which grows at less than 1mm per year. She explained that we cannot make more peat in our lifetime, we can only preserve what we have. They then discussed how humans need to consider the importance of peatlands, how they act as a water sink (water storage), but also a carbon sink (all the decaying organic matter), how they filter water and even slow down movement of water in times of floods.



They imagined how a dam upstream could potentially cause the peatland to dry out. They thought about the ecosystem downstream of the peatland and what might be affected. They considered how humans remove too much water for irrigation of crops and allow livestock to trample on the peatlands.

She also talked about managing peatlands and how important it was to keep them clear of encroaching forests. The learners were mostly engaged, some knew of Onrus, a few had observed the Onrus lagoon after the flood. All loved the ‘bog in a bottle’ and the sponge example.

John Cowan covered Peatlands and their effect on Climate Change. He started by looking on what Climate Change is, its causes and effects. They then looked at the extent of peatlands in the world (just 3% of the earth’s surface) and noted that 30% of the Carbon locked in the land is found in Peatlands. He then discussed the impact of loss of peatlands on climate change.  

Anina Lee looked at what a Palmiet wetland looks like where peat can form over thousands of years. They then discussed threats to wetlands in general and peatlands in particular: water drainage, over-extraction of water, alien trees, droughts and climate change. They looked at photos that showed what happens if peatlands dry out and fires sweep over it. Dried peat catches fire and smoulders underground. Noxious gases are released, including the methane and carbon dioxide that had been sequestered in the peat, contributing once more to climate change.

She then discussed what happened in the Onrus Peatland when it was allowed to dry out (due to insufficient water released from the upstream dam) and then burned for 5 months before it could be doused using a spike branch water spray tool.  But sadly, during the great flood of September 2023, the peat that had been transformed to ash, could no longer perform its ecological functions. It washed away and ended up on Onrus Beach.

Shirley Mgoboza looked at where in the world and in South Africa these precious peatlands are situated. They looked at the South African map and identified 5 regions which had peatlands. She then explained that only 3% of earth’s land surface has peatlands and of that 3% only less than 0.5% peatlands are found in South Africa and this is because South Africa is a very dry country compared to the countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

She then discussed the socioeconomic importance of peatlands in South Africa. They included generating income through eco-tourism, water regulation, biodiversity conservation, and help in the interest of climate change, research and education.

We are most grateful to the AVI Community Trust for sponsoring this schools education programme.