Water Institute researcher pushes for clean water

After seeing scarcity and contamination first-hand, Siddhartha Roy wants to improve water quality globally.

Man stands as water droplets fall around him.
A research associate at the Water Institute in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, Siddhartha Roy works to improve water quality globally. (Megan Mendenhall/UNC Research)

When Siddhartha Roy was a child in Palanpur, India, his family woke up at 7 a.m. to collect water in earthen pots and steel storage tanks to use for the rest of the day. This was the only hour of the day water was piped into their house.

“If you sleep late, you lose it,” he says.

Witnessing that scarcity of water had a profound impact on Roy, now a research associate at the Water Institute in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. So did his field work as a Virginia Tech graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, when he visited homes in Flint, Michigan.

Problems in Flint

In 2014, Flint had switched its water sources from Lake Huron to the local river without mandating corrosion control treatments. By the time Roy came to Flint in 2015, residents had been reporting discolored water and sick children for months, but the state of Michigan denied these claims.

Residents had reached out to Roy’s doctoral adviser, Marc Edwards, to learn more about their water problems and to support their fight with data. His team analyzed water samples from 269 homes and found lead levels in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

The city switched its water source back to the properly treated Lake Huron in October 2015, but the damage had been done. At the start of 2016, Michigan and then President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency. Flint’s water finally began meeting federal standards, and the city has since replaced nearly all lead and galvanized steel pipes. But given the failure of government at all levels, trust issues on water quality continue to exist to this day.

The failure served as a reminder of how poorly equipped the world is when it comes to chemical contaminants in water. Roy knew from personal experience that other countries are much worse off and decided it was time to take his fight abroad.

For Roy, Carolina’s Water Institute was the logical next step.

“The Water Institute has an illustrious track record of working in some of the poorest countries in the world and asking important questions about water quality and health,” Roy points out. “It fit my expertise and my long-term goals of wanting to work in international development. I want to give back, to work on problems in India and other places.”

Pushing for clean water globally

Roy’s work at Carolina is taking him to Western Africa, a region where safe water access has been a widespread issue and most progress has only been made in the past two to three decades.

The project is holistic, focusing on education and partnership, providing countries with the resources and knowledge they need to identify and remediate lead contamination.

Roy and his colleagues aim to aggregate their findings and experience into a knowledge portal, identifying factors that affect water safety and infrastructure. These include policy, education, monitoring and surveillance, lab and human capacity, and more.

Roy also joined an informal working group to address the global issue of lead water contamination. The group created a new global pledge to eliminate lead in drinking water by 2040, launched at the U.N. 2023 Water Conference in March. Now they’re recruiting countries and organizations working in the water sector to sign the pledge, leading to a full U.N. resolution targeting lead in drinking water.

“For the first time, we are talking about this at a global level. But the pledge is a starting point that galvanizes action — and I am optimistic. The real work begins now.”

Read more about Roy’s research.

The Water Institute is hosting the 2023 UNC Water and Health Conference Oct. 23-27.