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An innovative programme for schools initiated by
UKZN’s Dr Mark Dent allows pupils to connect
environmentally online.

The Umthombo Enviro Club at Umthombo Secondary School in Mpophomeni meets on a regular basis in one of the school’s classrooms.

At their last meeting, the Google Earth image appeared on one of the cream-painted classroom walls through a projector linked to a laptop. The globe tilted and after a vertigo moment, the picture plunged down towards earth with viewers finding themselves “hovering above Mpophomeni”.

‘That is an eagle-eye view of your township,’ said Ms Louise Boothway of the Eco Schools Programme, an international project active in 51 countries, which facilitates the club meetings.

Zooming closer, pop-up flags appeared on the screen. Clicking on them revealed what members of the Umthombo Enviro Club had been up to lately.

Photographs showed members participating in a project drawing attention to the sewage problems experienced in parts of Mpophomeni.

One photograph featured club member Mr Olwethu Ngcobo interviewing a local woman using a cellphone. ‘I recorded her telling me about the area just below her property that is polluted with sewage and how her children cannot play outside.’

These photographs and the environmental issues they highlight can be seen by anyone who signs up to the Mathuba Schools and Citizens River Health Programme, which uses cellphone technology to report, discuss and take action on issues affecting the health of local rivers.

Participating in the programme is simple. A cellphone or camera is used to take photographs or write comments on local environmental issues which are then posted onto a special address at Flickr. Pictures are shared on Flickr.

By downloading SCRHP files from the Mathuba website, the files can be opened with Google Earth to discover what other members of the Mathuba programme are experiencing where they live.

Mathuba is Zulu for “an opportunity” or “now is the time”, and while the programme is aimed primarily at the youth, anyone who wants to work with other organisations in developing and promoting school-based research activities can sign up.

It’s early days yet and there are just a handful of members, including the Umthombo Enviro Club, Mpophomeni Eco Champions and the Imbali Organic Farming.  However, the programme clearly has a global potential thanks to its use of the Internet.

The Mathuba programme is a collaboration organised by UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences and is headed by Senior Lecturer, Dr Mark Dent. ‘It’s designed to encourage pupils to take a lifelong interest in the health of rivers, their immediate environments and the catchments to which they are connected,’ says Dent.

The other organisations collaborating in Mathuba are the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust (Duct), Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute, Working for Wetlands, Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, Umgeni Water and the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

Dent had been pondering the need for such an environmental Internet programme for some years, but interaction with environmental teacher Ms Lynn Hurry a year ago proved the necessary catalyst to its creation.

‘Mark had a good idea, but he needed someone to get it going,’ said Hurry, who is now an associate on the Mathuba programme. ‘I have a good network of contacts via my work with WESSA and other environmental organisations, and was able to connect the people to get it up and running.’

According to Dent, much of the thinking underlying the intellectual core of Mathuba is based on the work of Mr Peter Senge, Director of the Centre for Organisational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who has devised a social learning model for the collection and dissemination of information on environmental issues that leads to an improved understanding, which, in turn, creates innovative solutions.

Dent sees the programme as being of use to people and organisations already working in the environmental field and for newcomers. ‘Citizens of all ages can put up what they are doing on the Mathuba programme. This is a process for 10-year-olds to PhDs and beyond.’

*This article originally appeared in The Witness and was written by Stephen Coan.