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Drawing upon internationally recognized faculty expertise, Carolina will mobilize around water through a new two-year, campuswide academic theme. Key issues will include ensuring water is available to and safe for people around the world since that access affects their health, the economy and social development.

UNC experts say the already furious demand for water will intensify with more economic growth and development as the world’s population hits the 9 billion or more mark by mid-century. New UNC research published by the University’s Water Institute reports 1.8 billion people around the world (28 percent of the population) use unsafe water. (That’s a different conclusion than the one reached recently by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.) Millions 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.

Proposed by faculty and units at the forefront of water research globally, the water theme aims to energize and guide activity across diverse schools, programs, centers and institutes during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 academic years. The Global Research Institute and its fellows program, UNC Global, Institute for the Environment, the Water Institute and the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases already have committed the next two academic years to the water theme. 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.

“Carolina exists to help solve the world’s problems, including securing and protecting access to water for a healthier planet,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp. “The water theme 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.”

Objectives of the initiative include sparking new thinking and making major breakthroughs in water research, organizers say. Results can 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.

The campus theme, “Water in Our World,” will officially launch Thursday, March 22, on World Water Day 2012. The United Nations and the global community recognize the day as a reminder that the world faces a global water, sanitation and hygiene crisis. To mark the occasion on campus, the Old Well will serve as the location on the same day 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 the water theme via email to

The committee envisions the water theme 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. Next fall, the campus will 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.

Published March 21, 2012.