$8.5 Million to Support UNC Water, Sanitation Research

A Carolina-born program has received an award of up to $8.5 million over five years to help bring clean drinking water and improved sanitation and hygiene to people in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

The funding, from the U.S. Agency for International Development, is going to WaterSHED (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Enterprise Development), which involves three UNC areas – the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Kenan Institute-Asia.

WaterSHED-funded researchers are looking for sustainable ways to increase the use of ceramic or biosand water filters in homes that lack clean drinking water. The hope is to reduce diarrhea and related diseases, which kill nearly 2 million children a year. The researchers also will investigate ways to achieve:

  • financially sustainable, scaled-up access to safe water sources, such as harvested rainwater;
  • improved sanitation, including latrines; and
  • greater practice of personal hygiene, especially hand washing with soap at critical times.

The award grew out of the Carolina Global Water Partnership, one of the first Gillings Innovation Laboratories funded through a $50 million gift to the public health school from Dennis and Joan Gillings. Dennis Gillings is former biostatistics professor at UNC who went on to found Quintiles Transnational, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical services companies. Dennis and Joan Gillings were among recipients of the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medals in 2008.

“We have come a long way in proving the effectiveness and sustainability of affordable water filters that are affordable, easy to make and simple to use,” said Mark Sobsey, Kenan Professor of environmental sciences and engineering who is the principal investigator on the project. “Now we need to find ways to make the production, distribution and use of these filters sustainable in the developing world and at a scale where the majority of people gain access to safe water.

“Effectively linking safe water to adequate water sources, proper sanitation and good hygiene through hand washing is also essential for achieving healthy and productive lives and communities,” he added. “It’s tragic to have technologies that can save millions of lives and not be able to get them to those who need them most. That’s what this project is all about.”

The USAID award will be managed by the public health school. Sobsey’s team will partner with colleagues in the business school to address research issues associated with commercially marketing public health products in Asia. Other partners include the East Meets West Foundation, EnterpriseWorks/VITA, International Development Enterprises, Lien Aid and the World Toilet Organization. Marion Jenkins of the University of California-Davis and Joe Brown of the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa are key research partners.

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