Spring 2023

Building global partnerships on water

article summary

The UNC Water Institute aims to solve global water insecurity through complex international partnerships and interdisciplinary research to improve public health.

Water is a vital resource for human life and public health, yet nearly 40% of the world’s population is water insecure. The UNC Water Institute is working to build and strengthen international partnerships to solve what Director Aaron Salzberg, PhD, calls “the water headache.”

“Ensuring that people have access to the water they need, where they need it, when they need it is amazingly complicated — there is no silver bullet,” says Salzberg, who is the Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor in the Gillings School’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) and has led the Institute for the past four years. “Even something you would think is simple, like putting a tap in someone’s house or building a well in a community, happens within a broader hydrological, social, technical, financial, and political context that can make things complicated fast. There are all sorts of factors that go into providing water services that are affordable, sustainable and equitable.”

As members of The Water Institute, several ESE faculty members — Professor Howard Weinberg, PhD; Assistant Professor Michael Fisher, PhD; Assistant Professor Musa Manga, PhD; and Associate Professor Joe Brown, PhD, PE — investigate the public health aspects of this complicated problem, such as chemical and fecal contaminants, water sanitation and treatment, and environmental health microbiology.

"It’s a step toward helping build global awareness and capacity to address some of these challenges around lead and drinking water. It’s also a perfect example of using science and evidence to drive policy."

Aaron Salzberg, PhD

The complexity of water is also why global solutions are important. Salzberg — who, in his prior role at the United States Department of State, worked with the United Nations (UN), the G7 and other international partners to establish global practices promoting sustainable and integrated management of water resources on a global scale — has put his extensive global leadership experience to work at the Institute, which in the past few years has:

  • Led the development of the first hydrological research strategy for the World Meteorological Organization, the only intergovernmental body that deals with water, weather and climate. The idea behind the strategy is to prioritize research on hydrological services and provide a platform to discuss how countries need to manage issues at the nexus of water, climate and weather.
  • Worked closely with the Biden Administration to develop the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security, elevating water security as a priority issue of the U.S. government.
  • Collaborated with international partners to catalyze action around lead and drinking water, which has produced a global pledge that commits governments to take the necessary steps to eradicate lead in drinking water by 2040. The Global Lead Pledge was launched in March at the UN 2023 Water Conference — the largest UN hosted meeting on water in nearly 50 years.

“These are some really exciting things that we’ve been able to do that are transformational on a global scale,” Salzberg says. “The UN proposal is supported by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, several countries including Ghana, Uganda and South Africa, and a host of other partners. It’s a step toward helping build global awareness and capacity to address some of these challenges around lead and drinking water. It’s also a perfect example of using science and evidence to drive policy.”

Closer to home, Salzberg convened a working group of faculty to develop a strategy to help the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality determine how best to invest federal COVID-19 recovery funds in infrastructure improvements that increase access to safe drinking water and sanitation services in disadvantaged communities across the state. The Institute is also working with a private company to test emerging technologies that make it easier and most cost-effective detect lead in water.

“The Water Institute is a bit of an anathema within academia because we’re really trying to unite science, policy and practice,” Salzberg says. “The practice component is not where many faculty traditionally spend much of their time — but that’s not the case at Gillings. A lot of faculty here focus on implementation science and are engaged in the field because at the end of the day they want to see their science improve public health, so they work really hard to tie their research to practice. That’s why I love the fact that the Water Institute is embedded within Gillings — it’s the right fit.”

More from this issue

See all articles from this issue