Water Exuberance

Water and Health: Where Science Meets Policy

This week, our new School-based Carolina Water Institute, led by Jamie Bartram, PhD, and the Institute for the Environment, directed by Larry Band, PhD, is holding a fabulous meeting with the title above. Over 400 people from 50 countries are in Chapel Hill to talk about every aspect of water—from engineering and technology to health-related issues, community development, policy and climate change.

I attended the opening session this morning. Clarissa Brocklehurst, Chief, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for UNICEF, gave an excellent keynote talk. She emphasized that although the UN’s Millennium Development Goals appear to have been reached for water, the average hides a lot of inequity. For example, a large proportion of people in Africa must travel more than 30 minutes to get water. Imagine doing that a couple or more times a day. Girls and women are the people who fetch water in many countries. This keeps many girls out of school. 

Water and sanitation go together. We tend to talk more about water, because sanitation leads to conversations about defecation—which many people find distasteful. Think about the fact that over 1.1 billion people in the world practice open defecation. Imagine what that does to the safety of groundwater sources on which many of these people depend. It’s part of the reason why 1.1 million children die each year from diarrheal diseases. Those children don’t have to die.  We won’t reach the MDGs for sanitation.

Improving water and sanitation improves people’s health and well-being, results in girls going to school and productivity improvements in countries that make these investments.

Water isn’t only about health, economics, peace (wars are fought over it), and education. It’s also an equity issue, like education and health care. Water is necessary for life; it should be a right. For anyone who believes in the right to life, water should be an essential element!

Water: Interesting Dinner Conversations

Sunday night, we had a very interesting dinner with people from some of the most respected private and public organizations that work on water problems– to talk about how to solve the world’s water challenges. It was fascinating to me, as a behavioral scientist, to hear one person after another mention  the behavioral issues associated with water. We can make technology improvements, but people have to use them, and that’s a challenge. Those improvements must be sustained. It seems like so much of what we have learned in other realms could be applied to water. Not all the knowledge will fit, but a lot will.

Water is one of the most interdisciplinary topics, which is part of the reason I find the topic so intellectually stimulating. It needs economists, environmental scientists, anthropologists, behavioral scientists, policy people, community development experts, microbiologists, epidemiologists and others working together. Artists of many kinds and writers are inspired by water and contribute as well. We should train students in interdisciplinary water programs that bring these people together to solve problems.  Solving problems is what we do especially well here.

Water is the perfect translational research topic. Good water research should go from the laboratory bench to the beach (think BP oil spill), from theory to practice, basic research to applied research and practice.  Jamie Bartram, PhD was a great addition to an already strong cadre of people in our department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering as across UNC.

There is another interesting angle. Drinking water instead of sugary drinks might help prevent/control obesity. The Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition, Barry Popkin, PhD is working with the Chinese government as they create a campaign to motivate people to drink more water. Here’s a poster from the campaign.

A good start to the week. A week that begins with my learning something new is a good week. If a dean doesn’t keep learning, she can’t do the job well.

Happy Monday. Barbara

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