Following the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Prof. Nana Poku writes for AfricaLive on the role of universities in ensuring a sustainable future for the African continent.

Key Points

  • The idea of sustainability has always been embedded in the very idea of public universities—but now, that concept has enlarged its meaning and scope.
  • These are worrying times, as all of us, individually and collectively, grapple with the challenges posed by climate change and other forms of environmental degradation.
  • Innovation and partnerships are key to our response.
  • The University’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab is prioritising innovative research related to developing renewable energy options, improving coastal water quality, predicting the future of shorelines under climate change conditions, and investigating ocean turbulence and the interplay of waves, currents and coral reefs.

It is the nature of Universities to be future-oriented. Year on year, we welcome the ablest and brightest in the expectation that they will, in time, be at the forefront of human betterment, not only as trained professionals but as sensitive moral agents and engaged citizens. The staff of the University of KwaZulu-Natal are sensitive to the privilege and dedicated to ensuring that we fulfil the expectations of the students themselves and the trust placed in us as public institutions.

The idea of sustainability has always been embedded in the very idea of public Universities—but now, that concept has enlarged its meaning and scope. Our students are acutely aware that all of their ambitions are contingent on a stable and resilient physical environment, now becoming visibly and increasingly fragile, and the deliberations of COP 26 has further focused minds.  The very serious environmental issues now receiving global attention have not caught the University or any academic department unaware. Since 2017, the University’s strategic plan has included high-quality, sustainable infrastructure and systems as an integral element of our plans and projects. In short, we recognise that sustainability begins near at hand and that we are responsible for what is within our reach.

But environmental sustainability is more than creating a kind of suitable but static backdrop to the day-to-day business of the University. In their teaching and research, our academic departments have long been committed to leading-edge work, with a view to advances that will benefit local environments as well as those at the largest scale; improve the lives of communities; and make the systems that support us, from agriculture to transport, more efficient and less damaging to both present and future generations. 

One of the great benefits of working in a University environment is that our students come to appreciate that although we have defined boundaries between disciplines, the larger enterprise of achieving healthy, resilient environments is seamless—and this is not only a rich source of collaboration between research centres but also gives extra meaning to our engagement with local schools, communities and businesses. For example, postgraduate researchers in Science and Technology Education have been engaged in helping the region’s science school teachers innovate their curriculum with a view to the foundations of sustainability.

In addition, the School of Education Community Engagement office, in partnership with non-profit education development organisation Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education (CASME), recently hosted its second Annual Environmental Sustainable Action and Community Development Conference at the Edgewood campus. This brought together over 200 participants, including teachers, students, communities, municipality representatives, businesspeople and academics, for an enriching and lively two days of action around the theme of Education for Sustainable Development.

UKZN lecturer and conference organiser Dr Angela James pointed out that ‘High Impact Societal and Stakeholder Community Engagement is Goal Three of UKZN’s Strategic Plan. UKZN intends to foster meaningful interactions with local, national, and international communities for mutual benefit. Its engagement agenda should enrich the Institution’s teaching, learning and research activities, and deepen its contribution to wider society.’ At the same time, postgraduate researchers in Science and Technology Education have been engaged in helping science school teachers innovate their curriculums to enable children to gain insights and learn responses to the issues they so often feel keenly about. 

It is perhaps under-appreciated that advances in environmental remediation and problem-solving can be remarkably complex, entailing fundamental research from unexpected disciplinary angles. So it is that the University’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab is prioritising innovative research related to developing renewable energy options, improving coastal water quality, predicting the future of shorelines under climate change conditions, and investigating ocean turbulence and the interplay of waves, currents and coral reefs.

The engagement of the University with the work of combatting climate change entails high-level collaboration and leadership. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently received global attention following the release of the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report from Working Group I on the physical science basis for climate change. With support from a component of the Working Group II Technical Support Unit (WG TSU II), hosted by UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, the Working Group II report on the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity and human societies, their various vulnerabilities, and evidence on adaptation to climate change is due for release in February next year.

The Durban office of the WG TSU II, launched in 2018, supports South Africa’s first IPCC Co-Chair, Professor Debra Roberts, who was elected together with Professor Hans Otto-Pörtner of Germany to oversee the development of the Working Group II report. Roberts, the acting Head of eThekwini Municipality’s Sustainability and Resilient City Initiatives Unit, brings a unique perspective to the IPCC, marrying global science with local practice.

These are worrying times, as all of us, individually and collectively, grapple with the challenges posed by climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. But it is immensely gratifying that UKZN’s staff and students have shown creativity, determination, adaptability and an open-hearted willingness to engage in unprecedented initiatives across familiar national, institutional and disciplinary divides. These kinds of creative responsiveness are set to enlarge, with new forms of responsiveness, clever innovation, novel partnerships and positive impacts, locally and further afield. I am proud of UKZN’s role in leading the way toward more sustainable ways of life and will continue to ensure that this vital work has every support we can offer.


Read next

Indigenous Knowledge: Optimise Natural Resources for Food Security

NWU ranked fifth in South Africa

Waste to Energy Innovation At Walter Sisulu University

Plants Offer Home-grown Solutions to Healthcare

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.