Jamie Bartram, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of The Water Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, was a keynote speaker at the Oct. 4 meeting of the UNC Global Leadership Council.
Bartram was recognized, in light of his upcoming retirement in November, for the Institute’s contributions to global health. His engaging talk highlighted the importance of water in North Carolina and around the world, the challenges of ensuring safe water and sanitation and the accomplishments of the Institute.
“I moved to Chapel Hill almost a decade ago to establish The Water Institute,” Bartram recalled in his talk. “I came because of a chancellor’s vision that UNC would tackle the world’s greatest challenges – and because, late one Friday afternoon, Dean Barbara Rimer unhesitatingly portrayed water as a critical component of the Gillings School’s vision for global public health. We set out, guided by an insistence on impact, sound policy, efficient program management, and better professional practices, to make UNC the global academic leader in matters regarding water.”
Bartram shared selected examples of the impact made by the Water Institute:
- As the United Nations began a transition, in 2010, from its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Water Institute identified seven important objectives necessary for strengthening the new goals. Because of their effective leadership in the field, researchers at the Institute were invited to join international working groups to offer expertise and advice. As a result, all seven objectives were achieved – the SDGs apply to all countries; they target safe water and sanitation in every household, school and health care facility; they demand that all communities treat wastewater; and they incorporate hygiene.
- Institute researchers became the whistleblowers who showed that, in low- and middle-income countries, most health centers lack power, half have no water, one-third lack any toilet, and 40 percent have no soap for hand washing. Only 25 percent of those countries have any policy or plan for improvement. The World Health Organization asked to publish the Institute’s report and added those findings to the organization’s own strategy. The U.N. Secretary General issued a global call to action, citing the work of Institute researchers – and governments, donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) convened in Washington, D.C. to seek input from Institute researchers on ways to improve programs.
- In West Africa, water is so unpotable that the poor, who can least afford it, drink packaged water. Most comes from unregulated backstreet operations, a quarter of which is contaminated with feces. Bartram and Institute researchers worked with the government of Sierra Leone to clarify duplicative mandates from government agencies, develop a realistic regulatory framework and assist government leaders with tools to support a nationwide rollout.
- Worldwide, millions of handpumps have been installed to provide villages with water. Perhaps two-thirds of them work at any given time. Institute researchers introduced continuous quality improvement (CQI) to rural water and now run CQI programs for the biggest U.S.-based NGO implementers. As a result, the functioning rate of the handpumps has risen to between 80 percent and 90 percent. That work alone has an impact upon more than $60 million of investments each year – while providing Gillings School students with the opportunity to learn from huge data sets and about large-scale, real-world programs.
Around the world, Bartram said, providing easily accessible, safe water for consumption and hygiene has decreased infectious diseases and deaths, allowed children to go to school and dramatically slashed the burden of water collection borne by women.
Still, challenges remain.
While 2 billion people around the world accessed improved drinking water sources over the last 20 years, one-quarter of the people globally still lack reliable, safe water, often the poor and rural-dwellers. In North Carolina, emergency room visits due to well-water contamination cost $40 million annually.
In October, Hurricane Florence damaged 750,000 homes and businesses. Even a modest reduction in the $170 billion cost of Florence would be significant, but the absence of climate policy and preventive planning continues to place lives and property at risk.
“Do we know how to fix this?” Bartram asked. “Yes! Have we? No – despite the fact that it makes economic sense, is a human right and is arguably the most transformative action we can take for the world’s poorest.”
Influencing at scale means accelerating system-level change, Bartram noted.
“The disconnect between science and policy is vast,” he said. “We therefore established the most substantial global conference on water, health and development, annually bringing together scientists and policy makers, here at UNC. Scientists must translate their findings into effective policies and real solutions for communities around the world.”
The influential Water and Health: Where Science Meets Policy conference will be held Oct. 29 – Nov. 2, in Chapel Hill.