UNC Launches Initiative on Water and Global Health

Water In Our WorldDrawing upon internationally recognized faculty expertise, UNC plans to mobilize around water through a new two-year, campuswide academic theme called “Water in Our World.”

UNC will be working to ensure that safe and available water — critical for the health of individuals, for economies and for social development — is accessible to people throughout the world.

“Water in Our World” officially launches today, on World Water Day 2012. The day has been recognized by the United Nations and the global community to emphasize that the world faces a global water, sanitation and hygiene crisis.

Carolina experts say demand for water is expected to intensify with more economic growth and development as the world’s population hits 9 billion or more by mid-century. Estimates vary regarding how many people in the world have to rely on water that is unsafe, but new research published by the University’s Water Institute reports that 1.8 billion people  — 28 percent of the world’s population — use unsafe water. Millions reportedly die annually from water-related health problems, and two of the most frequent natural disasters — floods and droughts — hinge on water.

Tackling a key issue facing society was a top recommendation in the University’s 2011 Academic Plan, a statement of objectives, priorities and the roadmap for the future. Taking a campuswide approach to that charge through the water theme marks a first in recent University history.

“Carolina exists to help solve the world’s problems, including securing and protecting access to water for a healthier planet,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86. “[Water in Our World] is a perfect springboard for engaging and inspiring the campus to do even more to meet the challenge of sustainability. It’s a great opportunity to show how Carolina fosters scholarship that helps improve people’s lives.”

Proposed by faculty and units at the forefront of water research globally and endorsed by the Faculty Council, “Water in Our World” aims to energize and guide activity across diverse schools, programs, centers and institutes during 2012-13 and 2013-14. The Global Research Institute and its fellows program, UNC Global, the Institute for the Environment, the Water Institute and the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases have committed the next two academic years to this effort. Students and faculty experts work in fields with multiple water connections such as public policy, planning, sustainable development, environmental engineering, business, law, marine sciences, natural hazards and disasters, and global health.

The initiative’s objectives include sparking new thinking and making major breakthroughs in water research, with results that might help communities, governments and businesses address issues such as the sustainable use, development and protection of water systems; protection against natural hazards; and ensuring access to clean, safe water.

To mark the “Water in Our World” launch on campus, the Old Well will serve as the location Thursday for a 15-minute reading of Caridad Svich’s play The Way of Water, which juxtaposes the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast with the lives of four people. Dramatic art undergraduate students will read a scene starting at 1:30 p.m. The campus community is invited to attend.

Thorp encouraged the campus community to respond to a call from a campus steering committee to submit ideas and suggestions for “Water in Our World” via email to

The committee envisions “Water in Our World” as spurring new courses, events and programs across the arts, sciences, professions, humanities and in the community. Examples include film screenings, featured lectures or speaker series, panel discussions and symposia, an annual interdisciplinary conference, speaker series or scholar- or artist-in -residence, as well as performing arts pieces. The campus plans to host an international water and health conference on science, policy and innovation implications of drinking water supply, sanitation, hygiene and water resources in developing and developed nations.

Organizers intend to share a water message with new students as part of orientation events and to connect water to the 2013 book selected for the Summer Reading Program. And they will engage with the local community, where the University has partnered with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority on innovative wastewater treatment and usage practices as part of a comprehensive sustainability initiative.

Steering committee co-chairs are Jamie Bartram, professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the Water Institute and formerly the World Health Organization’s coordinator for work on water sanitation and hygiene; and Terry Rhodes, professor and chair of the music department and the next senior associate dean of fine arts and humanities.

On the same day as the launch of “Water in Our World,” UNC announced that Don and Jennifer Holzworth of Chapel Hill have donated $666,000 to establish a fund to retain or recruit a professor who is a global leader in research and policies for improving the world’s access to clean water and sanitation. The donation will create a the Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professorship in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. The gift is expected to be supplemented with matching funds through the state’s Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund to create the $1 million distinguished professorship.

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