TNC Science Brief

Time to Bust the Silos: Coral Reefs, Human Health + Sewage Pollution

With a shortage of flat coastal land, the Kia community builds homes directly over their reef in the Arnavon Islands. While the setting is picturesque, chief Nelson Bako laments that fish immediately in front of the village are contaminated by sewage--as well as depleted. Fishermen paddle several hours to reach clean, productive fishing grounds. © Djuna Iveriegh

Though they share many goals, human health and conservation organizations rarely share resources, strategies and expertise to address common challenges. A recent paper in BioScience analyzes the shared threats that sewage pollution poses to people and coral reefs, and argues that conservation and human health practitioners could be far more effective by establishing formal, cross-sector alliances to maximize investments, improve outcomes, and benefit both people and nature.

The Gist

“Poor water quality is a prime example of a shared threat that both corals and humans face,” says TNC marine scientist, Steph Wear. In her paper, “Battling a Common Enemy: Joining Forces in the Fight Against Sewage Pollution,” Wear notes that the health of both coral reefs and people are imperiled by a threat that is simultaneously local and global: sewage.

The irony, according to Wear, is that in many cases, human health and marine conservation sectors are fighting the same root causes and effects of poor water quality. They’re just fighting them separately. That separation, argues Wear, is a lost opportunity because, as her paper shows, some of the world’s largest and most influential health and conservation organizations, including TNC, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the One Health Initiative, are already positioned to engage in holistic, cross-sector, human-environmental work.

The Big Picture

Most human health challenges have an environmental component.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that eliminating environmental hazards – like sewage pollution – could prevent as much as 25 percent of the world’s disease burden. There is also potential for substantial long-term savings by addressing root causes. For example, protecting and managing watersheds to maximize their ability to improve water quality is often far more cost effective and quicker than installing new pipes, water treatment facilities and sewage systems to serve millions of people.

The recognition that collaborations among human health and environmental organizations are necessary for successful, lasting outcomes has grown over the last 20 years. But even with the advent of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, recognition alone has not been enough to spur action, and, says Wear, “cross-sector collaborations are still the exception rather than the rule.”

Why? In a word: silos.

“If health and conservation organizations continue to work in our traditional silos,” says Wear, “we can expect more of the same: Incremental results, occasional successes and temporary fixes that rarely get to the root of the problem. Without mandates to collaborate and solve problems, organizations stick to what they know. We need to change our default from separation to collaboration.”

The Takeaway

Many organizations are already making progress towards creating the enabling conditions for broader and more effective collaborations. TNC’s work with the Bridge Collaborative and the Science for Nature and People Partnership is designed to find solutions at the intersection of human and environmental health.

But we need to do more, says Wear. “Bringing together epidemiologists, engineers, economists and ecologists is likely to result in better informed and, arguably, better designed solutions to problems facing both people and nature.”

Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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