Knowledge exchange on an equal footing

Professor Silja Klepp is the new joint holder of the UNESCO Chair on Integrated Marine Sciences. She focuses attention on the political and social dimensions of climate change and environmental changes.

Concrete wall on a Mediterranean coast
© Barbara Dombrowski, Kiel University

Embankments or other structures made of concrete have not proven their worth as a coastal protection measure. Nevertheless, they are still a common sight in many places, such as here in Sicily.

Kiribati, Sicily and in the future Cape Verde – when Professor Silja Klepp talks about the places she works, dream holidays spring to mind. But sunshine and white sandy beaches are just one side of the story. There are also significant environmental problems there, mainly due to climate change. This not only applies to the island states in the South Pacific or the Central Atlantic, but also to Europe. "Climate change has arrived in the heart of Europe," said the social geographer. "I am working in Sicily on climate change adaptation and coastal protection." One problem there is coastal erosion, where hard infrastructures like concrete are used for protection. By now, it has been proven that this does not work, however. In her research, Klepp explores why these unsuccessful measures are not stopped and what the background is. “This is about different interests, access to resources, and often also about different ideas of a good future for the island.”

Silja Klepp also wants to bring this social science perspective to the UNESCO Chair, which she shares with the marine chemist Professor Arne Körtzinger from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. Because, according to Klepp, "measures for climate change adaptation can only be successful if political and social dimensions are taken into account." Geographically, the Chair’s activities are based in Cape Verde. The archipelago of 15 islands lies around 570 kilometres off the west coast of Africa, and it has long been an important location for marine research: the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel operates a research station on the Cape Verde island of São Vicente. This is not only a starting point for expeditions, but also an international meeting place for the early career researchers of Cape Verde and the region of West Africa. "I think it is a huge opportunity that we have the possibility to work on an interdisciplinary basis on site and in this educational partnership, and to highlight the important social science aspects of climate change and environmental changes. In Cape Verde, we have ideal conditions for engaging in dialogue with students and researchers on site, along with the institutions and civil society," emphasised Klepp, who heads the Social Dynamics in Coastal and Marine Areas working group at the Department of Geography.

The priority research area Kiel Marine Science (KMS) at Kiel University is supporting the activities within the UNESCO Chair with funding of 60,000 Euros for three years. This money is for activities such as organising summer schools and enables teaching offers in Cape Verde.

There is certainly no shortage of ecological problems on the Cape Verde islands. One of them is sand mining, which leads to erosion and occurs under very harsh working conditions. Klepp: "This is an environmental conflict in which social aspects play a major role." In the educational partnership facilitated by the UNESCO Chair, it is important to her to organise the exchange with local people on an equal footing, "so that no new colonial context arises. In international development cooperation, I have often observed how projects were planned from the top down with western technology and western knowledge. However, this cannot be successful in the long term if local conditions and local knowledge are not taken into account."

Author: Kerstin Nees


UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is the United Nations organisation for education, science and culture. The UNESCO Chair Programme was established in 1992. The principles of the more than 700 UNESCO Chairs worldwide include international networking, especially North-South cooperation, as well as the promotion of intercultural dialogue.

There are currently 14 UNESCO Chairs in Germany with different focus areas, all of which are committed to the goals of UNESCO and the goals of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. A UNESCO Chair in the field of marine sciences has been in place at Kiel University since 1997. This is currently shared by Arne Körtzinger, professor at Kiel University and marine chemist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and Silja Klepp, professor of human geography in the Department of Geography at Kiel University. She succeeded Dr Jörn Schmidt, who moved to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in Copenhagen.