WORKING TOGETHER ON WATER

Water Institute leader wants to mobilize expertise across UNC, strengthen national partnerships

Gillings professor Aaron Salzberg, PhD, is bringing his international water policy experience and conflict resolution skills to expand The Water Institute’s role in in global water security.

The Water Institute, established at Gillings in 2010 with the goal of creating a more water-secure world through research, policy and practice, brings together individuals and institutions from diverse disciplines and sectors and empowers them to work together to solve the most critical global issues in water and health. Salzberg, the Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, took the helm of The Water Institute in late 2019. Before joining UNC, Salzberg was the lead water adviser to five Secretaries of State, negotiated major international agreements, and created partnerships that strengthened the United States’ and international community’s capacity to address global water challenges.

The Institute is well-respected for its policy-relevant research around drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) and its annual Water and Health Conference, an event where practitioners, investors and the research community engage each other directly to find solutions to deliver sustainable water and sanitation services for the more than one billion people across the world who currently live without it. The 2020 Conference, held virtually in October,and drawing more than 3,500 participants from more than 140 countries, explored issues surrounding WaSH, with a full day devoted to discussing COVID-19’s impact.

The conference also featured a plenary panel on the role of the WaSH sector in contributing to systemic inequalities, including how biases affect data, how grant-giving and project implementation processes may exclude communities and how work in the WaSH sector itself may be preventing the kind of change needed to address systemic challenges faced by marginalized populations.

Salzberg believes that UNC and the entire Research Triangle area has the potential to be a global leader on water if UNC and others fully leverage their knowledge and expertise and strengthen key partnerships with regional and global organizations. “We are building off of an institution that has a great reputation on drinking water and sanitation, but the world’s water challenges are becoming increasingly complex. We need to expand our efforts to focus more broadly on ensuring water security and greater resiliency to the impacts of climate change.” Salzberg says. “Our goal is to make this campus the No.1 place in the world to work on and solve complicated water problems. We have tremendous capacity. There are 60-70 faculty connected to water in some way, and others who could be. And the Research Triangle is one of the most water-rich areas in the world in expertise. If we can unite ourselves, the world will come to us.”

The Research Triangle is one of the most water-rich areas in the world in expertise. If we can unite ourselves, the world will come to us.

—AARON SALZBERG, PhD

Salzberg envisions The Water Institute serving as a university-wide platform for solving complex water problems by mobilizing the expertise, knowledge, and research that the university has to offer – not only in environmental sciences but also in the business school, the law school, humanitarian studies, engineering, health, and other areas of study. For example, Salzberg says, UNC’s Conflict Management Institute has the expertise to address environmental security issues, including conflicts over scarce resources which are becoming increasingly common. Building fundamental skills to help the next generation of water experts to manage differences makes sense, whether they’re preparing to serve as policymakers, practitioners, or scientists. “Water is a lens through which we can inspire people to solve human problems,” he says. “I’m here to change the way the world works on water, but I’m also here to change the way the university works. Wouldn’t it be great if we could mobilize everything we have to offer to solve critical conflicts across the world – and put these resources in people’s hands?” In addition to leveraging partnerships across the university, Salzberg wants to strengthen outside relationships and expand UNC’s reach across the globe. In addition to the Institute’s annual Water and Health Conference, participating in other international events is critical. Salzberg is working to formalize partnerships between The Water Institute and global organizations he’s worked with in his previous capacities, such as the World Meteorological Organization, the African Ministers Council on Water, the World Health Organization, and others. In the next few years, the United Nations will be working on sustainable development goals and implementation, providing a unique opportunity for The Water Institute to influence that process. “It’s great that we do great science, but I want us to make a difference in the world,” he says. “We want to take our science from the bench and inform policymaking at the highest levels. We want to be where world leaders are sitting down. Every water challenge is complex. The challenges around drilling a well, whether it’s in Kenya or rural North Carolina, are phenomenal. There are technical, financial, capacity building, supply chain, political and social challenges, and you need to bring it all together. Solutions that use convergent science and bring disparate groups together are the solutions that will be long lasting.”

Annual Water & Health Conference

OCTOBER 2020 VIRTUAL

Practitioners, investors and the research community engage each other directly to find solutions to deliver sustainable water and sanitation services for the more than one billion people across the world who currently live without it.

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