Commentary calls for protecting public health by improving resiliency of water services

November 1, 2017

Two UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health faculty members are co-authors of a commentary that advocates for the resiliency of water services, especially given the circumstances of a changing climate.

Dr. Jamie Bartram

Dr. Jamie Bartram

Dr. Jason West

Dr. Jason West

Jamie Bartram, PhD, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of The Water Institute at UNC, which is housed in the Gillings School, and Jason West, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering, wrote the article, which was published Oct. 18 in BMJ Opinion.

Also a co-author is Guy Howard, PhD, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) policy team leader at the U.K.’s Department for International Development, based in Glasgow.

The authors report on the public health and economic impact of dramatic weather events worldwide in 2017, including hurricanes, floods and droughts. “In the U.S. alone,” they note, “hurricanes left nearly 100 people dead. Economic costs are estimated to be around $150 billion and are predicted to reduce national GDP growth by 1 percent.”

During drought, they report, water sources may dry up, preventing basic hygiene and increasing the amount of energy spent on collecting and purifying water. The risk of diarrheal and skin diseases – even of cholera – is increased greatly.

They note that significant attention and resources are focused upon recovery during the immediate aftermath of a water-related disaster. Such attention is appropriate, but it must be coupled, they contend, with restoring basic infrastructure and services and making long-term investments that reflect adaptation to climate change and prevention of climate-caused disasters.

The incidence of these disasters and the resultant disease burden are likely to increase, the authors claim, placing further stress on health systems. Whether one believes in human-caused climate change or not, they say, the frequent recurrence of the disasters should lead to action.

“In low- and middle-income countries, ensuring first time access to basic or improved services may distract from ensuring that those services are resilient,” they write. “In high-income countries, there may be complacency with infrastructure that has taken many decades to construct. While many are taking action, the focus is primarily on planning and utility operations, rather than investment in resilient infrastructure.”

The authors call upon the health sector to lobby for these investments, to improve evidence about interventions and to engage more closely with climate change research.

“We need health professionals to engage in difficult discussions about how resilience is defined and measured and how to protect health in a changing world,” they write. “And we need them [to do so] now.”


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu