Profile with Sarah-Jane Littleford

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Sarah-Jane Littleford (Zimbabwe & Brasenose College, 2010) is currently a DPhil student at the School of Geography and Environment at the University of Oxford. Her on-going research focuses on the concept of intergenerational equity, with a focus on water policy in the Republic of South Africa. Sarah-Jane also holds an MPhil in Geography from the University of Oxford in addition to a B.A in Sustainable Development from the University of Pennsylvania.

Rhodes Project:  Where do you call home?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: Harare in Zimbabwe. It’s where I grew up and spent the first eighteen years of my life. I’m a fourth generation Zimbabwean so I really have no claim to anywhere else!

Rhodes Project: What has surprised you about your time at Oxford?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: I was most surprised by how intellectually engaged everyone is, the whole time! In my undergrad I felt that you’d have great discussions in class, but you’d leave class and those discussions wouldn’t necessarily move beyond those walls. But at Oxford, you go to a pub in the evening, or sit in the park on a weekend afternoon, and meet people and have intellectual discussions with them.

Rhodes Project: What motivated you to study the environment and water resources in particular?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: I’ve always been interested in studying the environment. Growing up in Zimbabwe, it was something that surrounded me and was a part of my upbringing. Water conservation and prevention of pollution was something that we were taught from the earliest age. It was what I thought everyone did and then I went to undergrad and realised that that wasn’t necessarily the case. I had some fantastic professors who mentored me in the Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Pennsylvania who really nurtured my interest in the environment and that was when I realised that I wanted to make an impact by challenging both individual people’s thoughts as well as organisational thinking on the environment.

I got into studying water resources because I was interested in the concept of intergenerational equity, which looks at how resources are currently used and how they can be conserved for the future. Water is such a huge part of that and it is something people don’t necessarily think about.

Rhodes Project: Could you tell us a little bit about your current research?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: My DPhil is about intergenerational equity in water policy in South Africa. The South African constitution is a fantastic piece of legislation; in terms of water, it guarantees safe drinking water for current generations and for future generations of citizens. SA is one of only 14 nations worldwide that have intergenerational equity as fundamental in their constitution. I’m looking at how the idealistic constitution works in application and what it actually means for local government implementation. I’m focusing on the province of Gauteng because it has a history steeped in gold mining. Gauteng is littered with mining shafts, and there a few current operations as well. But what this means is that acid mine drainage is a huge problem for the province. If you imagine a jam sandwich - that is Johannesburg’s geological make-up. The pieces of bread are dolomitic rocks, which are very porous. In between is the jam which is the gold layer. When you go in and remove the jam, you leave behind a vacuum between the dolomitic layers. Water moves through the dolomitic rocks and into that space, except now there are a lot of toxic materials there from the processes of gold extraction. The water absorbs these materials and becomes acidic and radioactive, and then moves through into groundwater and surface water sources. It’s a huge issue for the country and something that wasn’t foreseen when environmental legislation was written. Issues of liability are thus a major concern for mining companies and for the Government.

Rhodes Project: Do you think there is a divorce between environmental policies and people’s awareness in developing countries? How do you propose the bridging of this gap?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: My experience in South Africa has been that people here are very focused on the short term goals. “How do I get housing? How do I find employment? How do I make sure proper sanitation is available?”  These are things that impact day-to-day living and a person’s sense of well being. Long term impacts on water include multiple industries - mining, agriculture, domestic use - and all have significant impacts on water resources that aren’t immediately recognised. People do think “I want my children to have a good life,” but when you’re fighting for everyday survival it’s difficult to merge these short-term and long-term concerns.

My opinion is that it’s the responsibility of Government and industry to take a long term view. For example, a mining company will set up a mine with an outlook of 50 to 100 years of useful extraction. All of their business plans are modelled on this long-term outlook. If these and similar industries don’t take their impact on water into consideration then they’re at fault.

An interesting finding from my research is that communities’ views are malleable. For example, if an influential civil society group operates in a particular area, and the focus of that group is flushable toilets, then that will become the community’s overriding concern as well. How do you judge overarching values when they seem so malleable?

Rhodes Project: What do you find the most frustrating aspect of what you study?  

Sarah-Jane Littleford: Particularly in South Africa, I have found my relationship with Government to be challenging. Most government agents are unwilling to speak with me about my work. In broader terms what is really frustrating is the lack of technical capacity in South African government. The Department of Water Affairs and Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa predominantly employ bureaucrats who don’t have the technical knowledge necessary to produce water licenses and review environmental impact assessments. That leads to huge time lags, corruption and a lack of innovation in the environmental sphere.

Rhodes Project: What is the most engaging aspect of being a PhD student?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: I would say that it’s the opportunity we are given to constantly learn, not only in our own subjects, but also in meeting other people and learning about their work. The breadth of knowledge you can pick up is fantastic! (And great for pub quizzes.)

Rhodes Project: As Junior Dean of Harris Manchester College, Oxford and your role as a mentor to younger students in the past, what has been the biggest challenge for you?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: I’ve come to realise that the stress that undergraduates experience is extreme. The incidences of mental health problems are so much higher at Oxford than I had ever expected or realised. Unfortunately, mental health issues are still stigmatized at Oxford, and it’s something we should be more open in discussing.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: I am a rower and I spend a lot of time at the gym working out. The best way for me to distress is to go out there, let my mind go blank and exercise my body. I also love learning to cook food from all over the world - right now I’m on a Middle Eastern kick, and am enjoying trying out all the recipes from the new Ottolenghi cookbook.

Rhodes Project: What is something you are looking forward to right now?

Sarah-Jane Littleford: I’m very much looking forward to the start of the new academic year, and meeting all new Scholars who are coming in. They’re always a fascinating group who bring really interesting experiences and stories - so I’m looking forward to meeting them in October. 

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