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Improving lives worldwide

Supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals to improve lives around the globe.

Published: 
19 May 2016

At the UN summit in September 2015, world leaders agreed on an ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the Millennium Development Goals to track global development. Research Highlights takes a look at how research across the University is supporting some of these key areas of global importance.

Safeguarding coastal areas

Adaptation to climate changes is high on the SDG agenda; Southampton research is helping coastal and delta communities, including those in some of the poorest parts of the world, to adapt to the effects of climate change and other environmental stresses.

Playing a key role in several interdisciplinary, multi-agency projects, Southampton researchers are using dynamic computer modelling techniques to create powerful forecasting tools. The models will help governments and policy-makers to choose the most effective ways of managing coasts, including dealing with the impact of sea level rise and extreme weather events.

Robert Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering, explains: “The nutrient-rich sediments deposited by rivers when they meet the sea make deltas some of the most fertile environments on the planet.

Worldwide, they are home to around 500 million people, many of whom rely on subsistence farming. However, these low lying delta environments are particularly vulnerable to a number of factors, including rising global temperatures and sea levels, dam construction upstream and subsidence. Collectively, this puts communities and their livelihoods at risk.”

One study that is assessing these risks is the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) Deltas project. Focusing on the densely populated Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta in Bangladesh, it seeks to understand the link between human wellbeing and ecosystem services (the benefits people derive from ecosystems, such as soil formation, food production and clean water). It also aims to forecast how changes to ecosystem services could impact on people’s livelihoods in the future, with a focus on poor communities.

The four-year, £3.7m study is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department for International Development.

It involves partner organisations in the UK, India and Bangladesh.

Two other major projects at Southampton consider deltas, complementing ESPA Deltas. Belmont Forum DELTAS, funded by the Belmont Forum, aims to advance our scientific understanding of deltas as coupled socio-ecological systems. “The data we have collected and indicators we have developed under this project feed directly into the ongoing SDG debate,” says Dr Sylvia Szabo, Research Fellow, at the University. “In our recent article for the journal Environment:

Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, we explain in detail how the new SDG targets and proposed SDG indicator framework may benefit climate hot spots, such as tropical river deltas.”

The DECCMA (DEltas, vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation) project is examining adaptation in deltas in Bangladesh, India and Ghana, with a strong focus on migration. This project is part of the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) programme, funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the UK’s Department for International Development.

Low lying delta environments are particularly vulnerable to a number of factors, including rising global temperatures and sea levels, dam construction upstream and subsidence. Collectively, this puts communities and their livelihoods at risk.

Robert Nicholls - Professor of Coastal Engineering

Protecting food security

Food security is another priority area. Global food supplies are at risk due to the effects of a growing world population coupled with climate change. Our researchers are at the forefront of developments in soil science, using the University’s cutting-edge technologies in innovative ways to help tackle this challenge.

Tiina Roose, Professor of Biological and Environmental Modelling and a member of the University’s Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS), explains why a deeper understanding of soil and plant processes is becoming increasingly urgent.

“Soil is fundamental to our food supply; 80 per cent of our food comes directly from plants, while meat supplies also rely on plantbased animal feed,” says Tiina. “Climate change is set to reduce crop yields by more than 25 per cent from 2050 and traditional fertilisers could run out during this century. However, it is estimated that we need to double food production by 2050 to feed a global population of nine billion.”

Tiina’s interdisciplinary group at Southampton is combining advanced technologies in new ways to determine how crops can be grown more efficiently as resources become scarcer. The group, which includes engineers, mathematicians, biologists and computer scientists, is working on a number of projects examining different aspects of this interaction, using data obtained through chemical analysis and sophisticated imaging techniques to inform powerful mathematical models. Through modelling, different scenarios can be tested out to determine how plants can be modified or managed to produce the best possible crop yields.

Current projects include a £1.4m initiative to explore how plants manipulate soils to extract more water and nutrients, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and a €2m award from the European Research Council.

With funding from the UK’s Newton Fund, our studies will look at the burden of infectious diseases in relation to urbanisation and climate change, to see how these threats are interlinked in Malaysia and what can be done to mitigate them.

Dr Stuart Clarke - Associate Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology

Reducing infectious diseases in young children

“Pneumonia is the world’s leading cause of death among children aged under five, despite the existence of lifesaving vaccines,” says Dr Stuart Clarke, Associate Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology.

Dr Stuart Clarke
Dr Stuart Clarke

Stuart is working on a number of projects to understand the disease burden of pneumonia and the research funding associated with it. This is integral to the SDG agenda, in particular in its goal to ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.’ Currently based at the University of Southampton Malaysia Campus, Stuart is a researcher from Medicine and a member of the University’s IfLS.

Stuart is studying the strains of pneumococci, a major cause of pneumonia, carried in the noses and throats of people in the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. The research centres on improving our understanding of how the reduction of carriage of certain bacteria through vaccination affects the ecology of the other bacteria in the respiratory tract, and whether resistant strains are evolving.

Through this research, Stuart’s team aims to influence national health policy in Malaysia. “The National Public Health Laboratory, part of the Ministry of Health, doesn’t know what the burden of pneumococcal disease is because the studies haven’t been done. So this carriage study will provide valuable information on which strains are circulating in the community,” says Stuart. “With funding from the UK’s Newton Fund, our studies will look at the burden of infectious diseases in relation to urbanisation and climate change, to see how these threats are interlinked in Malaysia and what can be done to mitigate them.”

With a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Stuart will also be studying how research funding is allocated relative to the global burden of disease. “We will quantify the contribution of research funds that these infections receive compared to research involving other pathogens that are important in human health. This will give policymakers a comprehensive picture of where there’s been a lack of funding relative to the impact of the disease and help to set global research investment priorities,” Stuart explains.

Promoting wellbeing for older people

Currently 12 per cent of the global population is aged 60 or over; by 2050 this is predicted to rise to over 21 per cent, and three-quarters of these people will live in developing countries. Asghar Zaidi, Professor in International Social Policy, is conducting research to improve the wellbeing of older people and promote active and healthy ageing in later life.

Professor Asghar Zaidi
Professor Asghar Zaidi

Through his work, Asghar makes a strong case that, with appropriate age-friendly physical and social policy environments, older people have the potential to contribute, not only to their own wellbeing, but also to help sustain a greater prosperity for society as a whole. This belief is critical in linking ageing and development and refers to the two bold pledges made in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals that ‘no one will be left behind’ and ‘we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first’. “We need to move away from the paradigm of seeing older people as dependent; instead we need to put more emphasis on their active and healthy ageing,” says Asghar, who is working with the European Commission, United Nations Economics Commission for Europe (UNECE) and World Health Organization (WHO) on various projects to help governments put this thinking into practice.

“Developing countries that have fewer resources; for example, those in Africa and parts of Asia, will face serious challenges as the population ages. They need to put programmes and policies in place as early as possible so that older people become net contributors to a sustainable development process,” he adds.

Asghar and his collaborators have developed two indices to show the level to which older people experience secure, healthy and engaged lives. The Active Ageing Index, developed in collaboration with the European Commission and UNECE gives a measure of how active and healthy older people are across European and other developed countries. Sweden currently ranks top, closely followed by Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. Countries in central and eastern Europe do not fare so well.

Working with Help Age International, London, Asghar also developed the Global AgeWatch index, the first global index to give a comparative picture of wellbeing of older people. Incorporating 96 countries, the data from this index will help governments make informed decisions to prepare for future challenges. Switzerland is currently at the top, followed by Norway and Sweden, with the UK ranked 10th.

Asghar adds: “The implementation of the SDG agenda will not be possible without good-quality age-disaggregated data made available by national statistical authorities, and the analysis and communication of the indicators by academic and civil society communities around the world.”

Asghar was one of the few academics invited to give input at the UN Expert Group meeting to determine whether the SDG indicators are inclusive of older people. In July 2015 at the UN Open-ended Working Group on Ageing, he addressed the meeting in New York, speaking about his experience in working on these two Indexes and their importance in using the indicators framework in the implementation of SDGs.

“We have contributed at the start of this process and throughout the next 15 years we will be continuing to support these goals through our multidisciplinary research across the University,” says Asghar.

More information about Robert's research

More information about Tiina's research

More information about Stuart's research

More information about Asghar's research

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