Durban - The only roof without a gutter leading to a rainwater tank is the hen house where children at The Birches Pre-Primary School in Sarnia routinely collect eggs.

That will change when someone responds to the sign, targeted at parents, at the car park: “HELP! Can anyone help us put gutters on the HEN HOUSE to collect water?”

By then, many more eggs will have been sold at the farm stall beside the car park, along with pawpaws and bananas grown in the school’s food forest, to help the little school of 130 kids which receives a limited state subsidy.

How all this has been possible begins and ends with the school’s attitude towards water, principal Scilla Edmonds told The Independent on Saturday

“We collect water in tanks but we make sure that any container that can take water goes off the roof. You never know when the water is going to stop. We deliberately have Day Zeros to remind people of the precious commodity of water.

“Hopefully, we are also making children think as they go into different careers. Water consumption goes into every single career and aspect of life so if we can start when very young, all the better.”


The school participates in the Water Explorer initiative, which takes bold action to save water through fun and interactive water-saving missions, and each class has “water detectives”.

“They check that taps are switched off,” said Edmonds.

There are reminders of water-saving efforts in every corner of The Birches: succulent gardens, indigenous gardens, compost heaps,  containers on standby, recycling stations and even a wall mosaic featuring the province’s landscape made of old plastic bottle tops.

The fence surrounding the school is a hanging garden, full of two-litre cooldrink bottles converted into pots to hold a variety of plants. 

There’s a Japanese-style bridge in the indigenous garden made from the wood of fallen alien species.

“The first thing we did was to get rid of the alien vegetation,” said Edmonds. “Except for one camphor tree, which attracts a pair of Egyptian geese.”

A container garden acts as a display to show the community it is possible to grow one’s own vegetables in hard times and an old bath tub filled with succulent rock roses awaits collection for a wedding as part of a barter deal for work done on the school’s computers.

Paintings of dragon flies mark places in the school that are of significance to the water conservation efforts. 

Even the toilets are especially designed to have views on to one or another aspect of the sustainability theme, made possible by tapping into what she calls the “hidden water”.

Edmonds, who grew up in dry Botswana, drives the work to recognise the value of water.

“For us, the value of rain totally exceeds the value of money. So I go with Botswana calling their money pula (‘rain’ in Setswana), and I believe the actions and attitudes of very young children can make a very big difference in their homes and ultimately change the behaviour of a community.”

On the other side of eThekwini, Danville Girls’ High School in Durban North has also the adopted Water Explorer programme, where there is policing, harvesting water off the roofs and weaving the importance of water conservation into lessons.

During Water Week, “eco” monitors police teachers who leave their lights or fans on during break, leaving a “smile”or “sad” sign at their door. 

They also keep an eye out for water wastage on the grounds.

The enormous roof of the school’s indoor sports centre feeds the adjacent swimming pool with water. 

“We also use it for the water the vegetable garden, the school’s gardens and some goes to flush the toilets,” said life sciences teacher Fiona Mann. 

“We are very involved in the Water Explorer programme, and through that there were a couple of challenges where we did research on the roof area to see where water tanks could put be put and what sort of sizes they came in. 

“They’ve actually been involved in a lot of the planning behind what we’ve done.”

The girls also researched the water footprint of various foods and come up with 
some interesting answers, said Mann. 

“This led to their compiling water-smart diets, which take into consideration information they gleaned, such as that it takes far more water to produce meat than to produce vegetables.

It also takes less water to produce a cup of tea than a cup of coffee: 30 litres versus 130, according to the Danville girls.

For more information, visit www.waterexplorer.org

The Independent on Saturday