Core courses must teach sustainable development

09 February 2006

Consultation: UCT's Dr Merle Sowman in conversation with Minister Sidney Mufamadi at the Johannesburg 2+ conference, two years after the World Summit on Sustainable Development. (In the background are Dr Lulu Gwagwa, former CEO of IDT, and Prof Mark Swilling, Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University.)

UCT should teach the principles of sustainable development in the core curriculum from undergraduate level if the institution is to play its part in the country's push to meet sustainable development targets, says Dr Merle Sowman, co-director of the Environmental Evaluation Unit (EEU).

Sowman delivered a paper and took part in roundtable discussions with high-ranking delegates from government and business at the recent Johannesburg + 2 gathering. The conference follows on the World Summit for Sustainable Development, held in the city two years ago, and evaluated the extent to which the country has met the targets set out in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI), adopted by the summit delegates at the WSSD in 2002.

"There is a lot of rhetoric about sustainable development at UCT but are we looking at all our curricula and equipping our graduates, particularly in engineering, building and planning, law and construction economics with the right skills before they go out into the workplace?"

Her call to fortify the core curriculum in this way mirrors similar action taken by UCT to acknowledge the social and economic impact of HIV/AIDS by addressing the issue across the spheres of teaching, learning and research. Sustainable development, she believes, deserves an equal focus.

Though UCT has already embarked on the PASE (Partnership for a Sustainable Environment) initiative to further inter-faculty and inter-disciplinary research, encouraging academics to "come out of their boxes", Sowman believes there must be "real desire" from management to encourage this cross-cutting, inter-disciplinary research interface.

"We must draw on the knowledge base across the campus and craft some exciting research around flagship projects that deal with sustainable development issues. One such inter-faculty research project focuses on sustainable building materials (for walls, floors and roofing insulation for low-income housing), for which a funding proposal has been prepared. UCT's Research and Innovation department will be assisting the team of researchers to source funding."

UCT will also be linking up with other tertiary institutions in this endeavour, she added.

Two years ago, amid much media hype, the international community descended on Johannesburg for the WSSD. From the summit emerged plans and targets to reduce poverty and protect the planet's resources. The main question at the Johannesburg +2 (two years after WSSD) gathering was: how much closer to sustainable development are we nationally?

In his opening address at WSSD+2, the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, reminded delegates of some of the main global targets set in 2004, namely, to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015, restore depleted fish stocks, to use and produce chemicals safely by 2020, and to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

Impressed by the representation of organisations at the recent conference, Sowman said she had been especially glad to see SADC environmental ministers and local government representatives (often omitted) among the delegates.

"There is no doubt that sustainable development is firmly on everyone's agendas," she said of the gathering. "Government and business alike know they have to embrace it, both in words and actions. However, the depth of understanding of the concepts is still lacking. Many still don't know what it actually means to embrace and mainstream sustainable development practices."

Achieving national and regional sustainable development goals will also need some urgent capacity building. Many countries from sub-Saharan Africa and Small Island Developing States, will not meet their targets unless they receive further technical assistance and capacity building and gain access to substantial additional resources.

And although South Africa is on track in terms of meeting certain key targets, consensus is that the gap between rich and poor is widening, providing a major stalemate in developmental terms.

Problems also remain in the country's drive toward sustainable development. "For example, in the final plenary session no mention is made of renewable energy in the report back from the energy roundtable discussion," Sowman noted. Though South Africa has made some headway on energy issues, the country is still powered by an unsustainable system, one that is heavily coal-based.

There has also been measurable progress in providing services to previously disadvantaged groups. In ten years South Africa has provided 1.9 million housing subsidies and 1.6 million houses. More than 70% of households have been electrified. Nine million more people have access to clean water and 63% of households have access to sanitation. The government is working to eradicate the backlog of infrastructure for water by 2008 and sanitation by 2010.

From a conservation point of view, South Africa has added another 66 000 ha of land to the national parks system and proclaimed four major new Marine Protected Areas, so that more than 18% of the coastline is now protected.

Though some back patting is permitted, Sowman believes there is an urgent need to put in place monitoring and evaluation systems in the next 10 years.

"We need to develop targets and indicators of progress, benchmarks to evaluate real progress and to strengthen the capacity of government in various spheres. What we also need is an integrated set of sustainable development indicators."

The current process coordinated by Statistics South Africa to establish a set of development indictors, could well form the foundation for this exercise.

And although Sowman doesn't doubt the resolve of key players in sustainable development initiatives, she does feel certain programmes could be done "better and smarter".

"These are often small things the sectors could do, for example, create houses integrating sustainable development principles in their design. In many cases the focus needs to move from quantity to quality." But the will is there: politicians and business alike acknowledge that sustainable development is integral to the country's 2014 vision and that the economic growth path and development plans must address the need for a balance of social, economic and environmental parameters, while recognising that tradeoffs will need to be made.

"There is, however, a huge need for training and capacity building both among government officials and civil society," Sowman observed.

"While there are huge capacity building initiatives through agencies like USAid, we need more than raised awareness," she emphasises. "We need to put in place learnerships, mentorship programmes and long-term capacity building programmes where people can get to grips with these complex and difficult concerns."

Universities like UCT, have a huge role to play in building capacity and skills thereby equipping South Africa to chart a sustainable path forward.

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