History & process

On the front lines of clean water — since 1870

Two of the earliest American academic studies concerning water, sanitation, and drinking water quality were authored in the 1870s by a UNC professor: William Cain, a member of North Carolina’s first Board of Health.

Our history

In the early twentieth century, Professor Herman G. Baity (pictured above) was a pioneer, developing systems and influencing policies that brought clean water to people across the US and the world. His leadership as Dean of Engineering at UNC helped keep the Sanitary Engineering program in Chapel Hill, even after other engineering programs were moved to what is now North Carolina State University. Baity left UNC to become the first head of environmental health at the World Health Organization (WHO).

From the mid-1950s, initially under the leadership of Daniel Okun, UNC became known worldwide for its work in water supply and management, pollution control, water reclamation and reuse, and watershed protection. UNC is renowned for its comprehensive approach to water issues, including strengths in aquatic biology, drinking water chemistry and treatment, wastewater and sludge treatment, groundwater protection, and water resource policy, with applications at the local, state, national, and international levels.

Recognizing that progress toward equal access to safe, healthy water will foretell the future development, safety, and prosperity of every country, UNC recruited Jamie Bartram, then head of Water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Health at the World Health Organization, to lead a new multidisciplinary effort. The Water Institute at UNC was launched in October 2010 at the first Water and Health Conference. The conference has since emerged as one of the most important gatherings worldwide for both established leaders and enterprising newcomers in water, health, and development. This signature event provides a platform to share research findings that can inform future policy.

Since its founding, The Water Institute has tackled ongoing and emerging issues of central importance to global public health with a commitment to improve policy, programming, and practice. Institute researchers have published numerous scientific papers and reached large audiences with knowledge products that translate insights into practical action. The Institute’s recommendations on global WaSH goals, targets, and indicators have supported policymaking and helped shape agendas around water supply and quality, sanitation and sewerage, environmental health in health care and school settings, and human rights. 

Continuing a tradition of excellence

Under the direction of the current Director, Aaron Salzberg, the Water Institute continues the tradition of excellence in WASH science, implementation and policy by ensuring the Water Institute is:

  • Globally recognized as a world-leader in providing real-world solutions to the most pressing water and sanitation challenges
  • A locus of learning, technical innovation, and entrepreneurship that is producing the next set of policy-leaders, practitioners, and researchers
  • Improving the lives of the people of North Carolina and beyond by working to promote a more water-secure future

Our process

Our goal is to ask the right questions, collect the evidence, and use that evidence to impact action.
Our process can be summarized in four steps:

1
Identify the problem

Science begins with asking the right question and knowing why it matters.  What’s the problem being solved? Is it answerable? How does it impact human health? Sustainable, equitable, and resilient economic development? Peace and security?

2
Develop solutions

This is where the research begins.  Once the problem is identified, what are the causes, how does it happen, and what are the potential approaches – social, technical, financial, political – that may be able to solve the problem.

3
Demonstrating they can work in the real world

Do the proposed solutions meaningfully and sustainably solve the problem – not here in a lab at UNC, but in the field under real-world conditions. If not, why not and how can the proposed solutions be adapted to achieve greater results.

4
Scaling up action

We’ve got a problem that matters and a solution that works.  How can we now scale-up implementation so that we can achieve meaningful results at scale.  Science and evidence can be the critical elements in building political will and catalyzing action.  They can also point the way towards policy solutions that can incentivize action.