President Ross, Chancellor Thorp, Distinguished Alumni, Members of the Platform Party, colleagues
I am here to talk about water, which may seem an odd focus for a for a University Day speech. It’s not really the stuff to provoke wild academic excitement. And as long as it flows from the showerhead, pours from the faucet, flushes the toilet and maybe waters the yard, we barely register its presence.
Contrast the fact that the inquiring minds of humankind have only found liquid water, in a thin film on the surface of one planet – planet earth - and it is on that film that we depend:
- civilizations have evolved around it and crashed when they exceeded its bounds;
- communities have prospered because of it and foundered on its exhaustion; and
- populations have grown because of the sustenance it enables and died because of the disease with which it is associated.
- Moving water transcends cultures, providing the sights and sounds we associate all with rest and relaxation.
And I seem an odd speaker for today. I am not a tarheel born, nor tarheel bred, nor a UNC alum. But I can claim that moving here two years ago closed a loop left open over half a century ago. Hermann Baity was a 1917 graduate of this university and went on to receive the first PhD in Sanitary Engineering ever awarded by a US university. He returned to UNC and became Dean of Engineering; leaving here to become the first head of environmental health at the World Health Organization. A role which I inherited 50 years later - and later left to come here.
My due diligence in Geneva involved asking anyone I knew with a US accent or education what they knew about UNC. I have since learned that this is not an appropriate research method and that I should have sought IRB approval beforehand! My respondents were absolutely consistent, referring to the fact that people at Carolina support one another and work together. When people told me this it was not glib, reassuring and cozy – rather something that defined this University.
Today I would like to make the case that the importance of water combined with this defining characteristic of our university community offer an exceptional opportunity for world leading and world-changing academic endeavor. I will call on two advocates to help me.
Since taking office, my first advocate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has marked World Water Day each year. In 2010 she summarized saying:
“… water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time. It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares … . Water is that issue.”
She referred to saving millions of lives.
- The evidence supports her. Lack of safe water and sanitation kills more people than HIV, malaria and accidents combined.
- In North Carolina and across the US investment in water systems brought typhoid – then a major killer - under control in the first half of the 20th century.
- Today UNC researchers are providing evidence to support formulation of new international development targets; leading work in China to remedy toxic algae in a lake that supplies water to 12 million people; and collaborating with private sector partners like P&G on simple life-saving interventions.
- Yet key research questions remain: how to prevent the water-borne disease outbreaks that affected more than half a million Americans in the 1990s? How to deliver sustainable basic services to the billions that lack them worldwide?
Secretary of State Clinton referred to feeding the hungry.
- Just this month we have seen on the news painful images of starving children in Somalia and footage of barren fields in the world’s bread basket – the American heartlands.
- Drought is a matter of life and death for subsistence farmers. In the US it means not only that food prices here will jump by around 5%; it also limits the availability of vital commodities like corn and soybean internationally.
- Our researchers are looking at innovative ways to redistribute risk; at financial insurance approaches to reduce the impact of drought; and are leading development of cyber-infrastructure to enhance access to data critical to managing water
- Again the need for evidence to do better challenges research. How to cope with ever-scarcer water matters here, nationally and internationally. Yet adaptation to a changing climate is insufficient and our understanding of how to adapt is inadequate.
What about empowering women?
- The average woman in rural Africa will spend a quarter of today collecting and carrying water.
- Globally girls lag boys in achieving educational targets and the lack of water is a major cause. Girls miss school when, like their mothers, they shoulder the burden of collecting water. They are also absent, and drop-out early, for the lack of privacy and security – a toilet – for menstrual hygiene.
- UNC researchers are exploring the practical implications of the recent recognition of the human right to water and sanitation – what it means, what it’s made of, how to measure compliance with it and how to support its implementation.
- Again, basic questions remain unanswered. Evidence suggests that water planning and management are more effective and efficient when women are involved; and confirms that often they are not. But how to enable and secure this remains unclear.
Secretary of State Clinton also referred to national security. She reiterated at the UN General Assembly that water is now fundamental to peace and security. A National Intelligence Council report, prepared during her leadership, reached worrying conclusions:
- that water-related problems would lead to instability of countries that, combined with other factors may lead to country failures;
- that, while war between countries was unlikely, water may increasingly be used in terrorism and inter- or intra-country leverage and conflict;
- that depletion of groundwater for irrigation by over-pumping - in areas like the Middle East and western US, combined with climate change, would stress national and global food markets; and
- that water shortages and pollution would adversely affect the economic performance of countries by impacting energy generation, manufacturing and resource extraction.
- Sounds bad doesn’t it?
- But the report went on to conclude that improved water management provides opportunities to cope with these concerns.
- I can barely imagine a more wide ranging and influential research agenda. Understanding of every single one of those challenges and opportunities is insufficient.
Finally protecting environment is perhaps so linked to water that it needs no explanation
- Water is fundamental to ecosystems of which we are part and on which we depend.
- Those ecosystems have value: in biodiversity and conservation; through their natural beauty and enhancement of our quality of life; by supporting industries like tourism and fishery; and through the natural treatment services they provide for the wastes we pour into them.
- Here and abroad those ecosystems – and the services they provide us – are threatened:
- Lake Victoria, the third largest lake in the world, has been diminished by population growth, invasive species, agricultural runoff, and industrial effluents; undermining subsistence fishery, degrading its natural beauty, and leading to the extinction of half the cichlid fish species that once existed.
- Here in North Carolina: climate change may affect the future of the Outer Banks; while responding to energy demands brings the potential impacts of fracking to freshwaters and of off-shore drilling to coastal waters.
- Again UNC researchers are engaged: determining the value of ecosystem services to humankind, investigating the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill; and developing state-of-the-art models to predict storm surges from hurricanes and tropical storms.
- Yet we know so little about some urgent complex issues – for example the connections between the pressures created by a growing and ever-more demanding population on water, energy and food.
Clearly the US Secretary of State sees water as a critical opportunity; and Holden, you set the bar for us when you described “our to-do list as nothing less than the greatest challenges of our time”. You set the bar and we jumped! Just a few months ago we committed to mobilize around a common theme facing society. We adopted water as not only this university’s first ever campus-wide theme, but also the first two year theme of any US university.
UNC is already:
- developing new courses, with collaboration across disciplines and schools;
- expanding interdisciplinary research initiatives;
- celebrating the vibrancy, power and beauty of water through new creative works in the visual and performing arts with students, faculty and visiting artists from all over the world; and,
- increasingly, we are recognizing - and securing - the added value of combining perspectives from disciplines across the humanities and sciences in confronting today’s complex water challenges.
My second advocate, Charles Fishman, captured the vision of our campus-wide theme better than any of us in his book ‘The Big Thirst’, saying:
“The goal isn’t just to bring water issues to prominence for students no matter their area of study… the frank ambition of the two-year effort will be to make [Carolina] a global center of water expertise and innovation, to do for water what, for instance, Stanford does for Silicon Valley. Perhaps most remarkably, there isn’t really anyplace like that in the US today.”
Earlier today we gathered by the Old Well. As far as I can tell UNC is the only university in the world to have a piece of water infrastructure as its official symbol. Today it serves as a stunning photographic backdrop where, by tradition, new students take a drink for good luck. But for many years it was where the inhabitants of student residences collected their water for everything from drinking to washing. In 1923, long after the well was converted to the form we know today, a survey of tenant farmers in North Carolina showed that none had running water and only eight of 175 had outside privies. That is the approximately situation in rural Somalia today.
In less than 100 years this state has transformed itself. This university contributed to that transformation. Managing water contributed to that transformation.
Today a new cycle of water challenges confronts North Carolina, the US and the world. Challenges that demand inter-disciplinary initiatives to deliver:
- financial innovation in managing water supplies;
- technological innovation in augmenting water resources;
- scientific innovation in understanding health and ecosystem impacts of new contaminants;
- social innovation in bringing water and sanitation to the un-served;
- policy innovation to address threats such as climate change; and
- artistic innovation to raise awareness of global water challenges and convey the universality of water.
Challenges that require vision and cooperation to solve. Challenges that require evidence to inform policy and practice. Challenges that call for academic leadership.
We have a rare, possibly unique, opportunity. In a university that can both celebrate and study water; that benefits from faculty, staff and student bodies that pull together; and thanks to the giants on whose shoulders we stand, one of whom we lost earlier today, we have the opportunity to be a leader – the academic leader for a defining challenge of the 21st century. And if we take that opportunity we have the capacity to leave this state, this nation and our world a better place.