Collaboration key for sustainable research

15 October 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo mali maeder/Pexels. Read time 9 min.
Human waste, along with the chemicals it contains, is being consumed by creatures all the way up the food chain, ultimately being consumed by humans.
Human waste, along with the chemicals it contains, is being consumed by creatures all the way up the food chain, ultimately being consumed by humans.

To conduct sustainable research and effectively address the impact humans have on the environment, universities, and society in general, must tackle the enormous challenge of bringing the sciences and social sciences together.

This was the call from Professor Lesley Green, deputy director of Environmental Humanities South, an interdisciplinary research cluster and postgraduate programme in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Green was addressing UCT scientists and social scientists at the African Climate and Development Initiativeʼs (ACDI) event, “Sustainability practice and research management at UCT”, on Wednesday, 9 October. The discussion formed part of an ACDI staff development project on “Leadership in complex-problems research, with a transformation focus”, and explored the context of sustainable research at UCT and what leadership in the area looks like.

The event included presentations by Green’s colleagues, including Dr Marilet Sienaart, executive director of UCT’s Research Office, who addressed “Research priorities and research management processes at UCT”, and Manfred Braune, director of Environmental Sustainability at UCT, who spoke about the university’s environmental sustainability strategy.

In her presentation, Green drew on research from six case studies of engagements between the sciences and society in recent years. These form part of a Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) project on which UCT and the University of Leeds School of Earth and Environment are collaborating, and will also be the focus of an upcoming book.

To highlight the need for collaboration between the sciences and social sciences, Green discussed the City of Cape Town’s 2040 water strategy, how this links to the impact of disposing of human waste into the sea, and the lack of consensus on how to promote behavioural change.


“There is this idea that there is this place called nowhere that you can send human waste.”

2040 water strategy

Referring to the 2040 water strategy, which is based on evaporation, condensation and sewage management, she described Cape Town’s way of thinking about water as “quite astonishing”.

An example is the Green Point outfall pipe, which has been around in various iterations since the 1800s, and from which raw sewage and the microplastics and chemicals emanating from humans travel into the sea – and will continue to do so. Cape Town also uses outfall pipes at Hout Bay and Camps Bay.

“There is this idea that there is this place called nowhere that you can send human waste,” Green said.

This, she stressed, is one example that has proven problematic for desalination, one of the City’s critical water-supply strategies. Currently, one of the suppliers, Quality Filtration Systems (QFS), is engaged in a legal battle with Cape Town because the raw water they are extracting near the outfall pipe is 400% dirtier than the City had said it was.

QFS is consequently having to change its reverse osmosis filters every eight hours rather than the usual one filter per several days.

Coinciding with this, Green and the chemicals group of which she is a part, conducted research near the outfall pipes. She presented findings from three sites: the Kuils River, off Camps Bay and off Hout Bay.

Chemicals and creatures

Sending human waste into the sea is particularly harmful because of the wave of pharmaceutical and chemical development. There is, said Green, the “most extraordinary array of chemicals that get into that water” from factory floors, hospitals, through human bodies and down rivers.

For example, testing of the Kuils River showed up Escherichia coli levels as high as 125 000 000 per 100 ml. Acceptable levels are between 100 and 400, depending on the assessment method.

Green’s group also found that chemicals from medications are accumulating in sea creatures off Green Point. Their tests showed up positive for a range of antibiotics, antiretrovirals and various other medications.

Off Camps Bay, where there is a particular profile of stress levels, the group found very high levels of blood pressure medication in sea urchins.

Off Hout Bay, the profile of chemicals was very different: children from Imizamo Yethu informal settlement are routinely treated for worms because of their exposure to raw sewage, and the research group found very high levels of albendazole deworming medicine in the sea urchins there.

When sea urchins or any other creatures low on the food chain are consumed by larger sea creatures, these chemicals are also ingested. And when people eat these creatures, they in turn consume the chemicals.


“[There is no] recognition that when the sea creatures at the bottom of the food chain that have ingested the chemicals are eaten by predators, these are in turn eaten and ingested by people.”

Human exceptionalism

Green pointed out that despite the evidence of the interaction and impact, this kind of environment thinking continues to be absent from the paradigm the City is proposing.

She said there is no recognition of the circular nature of human impact on the environment, into desalination plants and back into the water system. Nor is there recognition that when the sea creatures at the bottom of the food chain that have ingested the chemicals are eaten by predators, these are in turn eaten and ingested by people.

This points to the problem of human exceptionalism, where nature and society are seen as separate in their materiality.

Green said it’s an issue that’s been identified not only in Cape Town’s water management, but also in climate and environmental science policies.

Human exceptionalism, which dates back to the 1600s, is the idea that humans are simply not part of the ecology of the planet. On campus, this view is even evident in the physical distance between the sciences and social sciences, she pointed out, adding that human exceptionalism is deeply rooted in societies, practices and scholarship.

Ex- times four

Green identified four forms wherein human exceptionalism replicates itself:

  • Excreta: Many of the molecules that are ingested by humans and then excreted contain persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as ibuprofen which is a drug that does not break down in the environment. These POPs accumulate in different species and in the food chain,, and end up causing new health problems later down the line.
  • Extraction: A second part of the City’s plan was extracting water from the Cape Flats aquifer. That was later shelved in favour of desalination, but there has been no regulation of people sinking boreholes. An idea that is central in human exceptionalism is that humans can extract natural resources without any ecological consequences.
  • Exaction: Often, in interdisciplinary fora, Green and her colleagues are asked for advice on behaviour change using education, rates and fines, and law enforcement. But for Green, changing behaviour cannot rely on behavioural economics and social Darwinism which argues that people are motivated purely by survival and money. This self-interested person is known as Homo economicus.
  • Expert: The word means standing outside of a situation. Often, academics stand outside of situations and do not work or engage with people on the ground who have intimate knowledge of a situation, such as fishers and farmers, Green stressed.

To address the four exes, the “experts” – the academics – must “get in there, boots and all, and be part of the situation with people and work things out together”, she urged, because the question of how to better integrate humans with nature is key to resolving one of the great challenges of our time.

What’s needed, Green said, is a paradigm shift in the relationship between the sciences and social sciences. Scientists and social scientists must think outside of social Darwinism if there is to be any hope of effecting behavioural change and creating policies that address the interaction and impact of humans on the environment.

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

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Climate change


The University of Cape Town is an internationally renowned hub for climate change research and training. Our work is a strategic response to urgent knowledge and capacity needs on the African continent – climate change impacts have severe implications for economic and social development, and Africa is particularly vulnerable. Greater expertise is needed to understand the challenges and to design, evaluate and sustain solutions. Engaged research can help society innovate and support effective climate policies and strategies.

This series of articles shows how UCT researchers are working with governments, civil society and the private sector to co-produce knowledge that is impactful, moving us towards a more resilient African society.


In the news