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Marine scientist Rachel Noble takes water samples at a beach near Morehead City. Her research areas of interest include shellfish harvesting water quality, marine microbial ecology and coastal and estuarine water quality.

Drawing upon internationally recognized faculty expertise, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will mobilize around water through a new two-year, campus-wide academic theme. Key issues of focus 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.

The campus theme, “Water in Our World,” officially launched March 22 on World Water Day 2012, which is recognized by the United Nations and the global community as a reminder that the world faces a global water, sanitation and hygiene crisis. (Read a story about a UNC chemist who is addressing issues of water potability and education in rural Guatemala.)

Steering committee co-chairs for the new theme are Terry Rhodes, professor and chair of the music department and the next senior associate dean of fine arts and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Jamie Bartram, professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, director of the Water Institute and formerly the World Health Organization’s coordinator for work on water sanitation and hygiene.

UNC-Chapel Hill 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, the United Nations Children’s Fund.) 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 campus-wide 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 and endorsed by the Faculty Council, 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. It will engage faculty, graduate students and undergraduates across many disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences. 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.

To mark the water theme launch on campus, the Old Well will serve as the location  on Thursday 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 watertheme@unc.edu.

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.

Organizers intend to share a water message with new students as part of orientation events and to connect water to the 2013 book selected for the Summer Reading Program. And they will engage with the local community, where the University has partnered with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority on innovative wastewater treatment and usage practices as part of a comprehensive sustainability initiative.

Steering committee co-chairs are Jamie Bartram, professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, director of the Water Institute and formerly the World Health Organization’s coordinator for work on water sanitation and hygiene, and Terry Rhodes, professor and chair of the music department and the next senior associate dean of fine arts and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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