November 24, 2020

The UNC Water Institute held the 2020 Water and Health Conference on Oct. 26-30 – an annual event that brings together researchers, policymakers, practitioners, technology providers and donors from around the world to examine the latest trends and evidence to inform policy and practice in water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH). For the first time since it was established in 2009, the conference was held online with no registration fee. More than 3,500 people participated in over 140 countries.

Dr. Aaron Salzberg

Dr. Aaron Salzberg

“I think this demonstrates the value of the product we’ve developed,” said Aaron Salzberg, PhD, director of the Water Institute and Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “We’ve created an event where practitioners, investors and the research community can engage each other directly in a way that makes all of us smarter and better able to deliver sustainable water and sanitation services for the more than one billion people across the world that currently live without.”

The Water and Health Conference is the only annual international conference dedicated solely to improving public health through universal access to WaSH. It aims to educate attendees from a variety of different sectors on salient water and health topics and engage them in actionable discourse.

“You’re not just talking to high-level government folks,” explained Kaida Liang, project manager at the Water Institute. “You’re also inspiring, motivating and providing critical feedback to young scientists that are coming up in this space so their work in the future will be useful for people who need evidence to make better policies or have a greater impact in the way they program on the ground.”

Though the pivot to a virtual format was due to COVID-19, it allowed the Institute to engage with a greater range of perspectives than in previous years. While past conferences have been held at the Friday Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, the free, online platform provided accessibility to a broader audience.

Drs. Joe Brown and David Weber from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health participate in a COIVD-19 panel.

Drs. Joe Brown and David Weber from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health join the Water Institute to participate in a COIVD-19 panel.

Presentations and poster sessions throughout the week featured a range of WaSH issues.  A full day of the conference was devoted to discussing COVID-19’s impact on water and health. Sessions also highlighted the significant contributions of UNC experts. To engage a broader audience, the Conference featured a “Late Early Show,” broadcast at 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, to recap content for attendees who were limited by time differences.

According to Salzberg, the session that may have received the most attention was a plenary panel on the role of the WaSH sector in contributing to systemic inequalities. The session touched on a number of timely issues, including how biases affect data collection and analysis; how grant-giving and project implementation processes or issues around meritocracy and privilege may exclude communities; and how work in the WaSH sector itself may be preventing the kind of change needed to address systemic challenges faced by marginalized populations.

“It was a very difficult conversation to have, but one of the lessons we’ve learned from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is that we need to give voice to these issues,” Salzberg explained. “We need to examine our own behaviors and the role that they play in sustaining inequalities. We are making decisions all the time — some consciously, some unconsciously — that are prejudging or determining outcomes. We need to be more self-aware and really push ourselves to examine the root causes of unequal access to basic services and focus greater attention on addressing the underlying disease.”

Dr. Musa Manga of the Water Institute presents on WaSH research.

Dr. Musa Manga of the Water Institute presents on WaSH research.

The accessibility of the virtual platform allowed the conference to bring new voices from across the globe to the discussion and to reach thousands more than the in-person event. The team at the Water Institute sees the dynamic of the conference changing for the better. They are eager to integrate a virtual element into future in-person conferences in order to increase accessibility and broker discussions between groups who would otherwise be unable to attend.

“What we try to do is to help connect the dots for people, not only between policy, practice and science but also from human to human,” said Liang. “I think we can’t go back to just an in-person conference. But we can’t discount it either, because this community really needs to be face-to-face with each other. They need to have another policy person or a field person in the same room and in the same discussion to help connect the dots.”

View the plenary “Addressing Systemic Inequalities in WaSH – It’s Me; Not You.”

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