With 70% of our planet covered in it, you can be sure water is a global issue. The topic of water can link into teaching and learning about issues such as climate change, economics, energy, health and human rights, for all age ranges.
Did you know that out of all the water in the world, only 0.01% is clean, fresh water available for use? This is actually sufficient for all the world’s needs if distributed evenly. However, that is a big IF. Some countries (like Canada and Brazil) have a plentiful supply and some countries and regions (like sub-Saharan Africa) have a limited amount. Added to these fundamental differences are issues such as mismanagement and overuse, pollution, large populations, climate change, privatisation and conflict. The good news is that with careful management, political will and new technologies, there is enough water for everyone’s needs, and it can be used as a sustainable energy source.
There are lots of opportunities in the curriculum to use water in lessons. The ideas discussed below give examples of how you can use water to bring a global dimension into your lessons. Each area provokes different opinions and could lead to some great opportunities for research and discussion in class. There are also lots of links at the bottom to more information.
Why is water important?
As my Grandfather says ‘Water is nature’s champagne’. It is a universal and essential requirement for life. Whether you live in the UK or Uganda, water is required for personal, agricultural and industrial use. In the UK we have fresh, clean water at the twist of a tap, but are vulnerable to flash flooding, rising sea levels and even water shortages. In Uganda, a land-locked country, coastal floods are not a threat but over half the population do not have access to safe, clean water. For a country reliant on agriculture, access to water is really important. It is used for personal and health hygiene and sanitation, to ensure successful harvests and to raise livestock.
It is now common for people to talk about climate change as a global issue – but what effect will it have on water supply? There are two main areas discussed by scientists. The first concern is that increasing global temperatures could lead to rising sea levels and coastal flooding. This puts coastal and island communities in danger of losing their homes – if they become uninhabitable, millions of people could become refugees.
The second area of concern is rainfall. In places where less rain falls the frequency and length of droughts could increase. This would result in crop failure and livestock losses, leading to many more incidents of starvation. Other areas may receive more rain than normal or have flash floods, which can also damage crops, houses and workplaces.
What can we in the UK do to help? At the moment the rich world emits 50% of the world’s CO2 each year (despite only making up 15% of the world’s population). In simple terms, reducing our CO2 emissions could help slow climate change and make a huge difference to countries all over the world. Students could explore the debates about climate change and actions that can be taken to prevent it.
As populations grow and quality of life improves, more water is required to meet all of our personal, agricultural and industrial needs. As there is only a limited amount of fresh water available, competition for use is increasing. For example, where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country, such as the Nile, water usage has become a political issue. Discussions about who should have access to fresh water and how much each country is allowed can lead to international tensions. Some people even say that the next major war could be over water. Students could research areas of water stress to find out what factors contribute to the growing demand for fresh water and which countries are most affected.
Privatisation of public services is often controversial in the UK. Clean water is an essential service and, in a global context, with the added complications of poverty, aid policies and the global reach of multinational companies it is even more hotly debated.
Global institutions such as the IMF, individual donor countries and companies that stand to make a profit often champion privatisation. In countries where the public sector is struggling to provide water to local people, farmers and industry, privatisation can seem an attractive option. However, there are cases, such as that of Bolivia, where privatisation of water services caused prices to rise by up to 200%. This led to mass protest and a reversal of policy.
Water is so clearly a universal human need that it provides a useful way in for young people to investigate issues around aid policies, the influence of multinational companies, and access to natural resources, the role of international campaigning organisations and the power of popular protest in challenging politics.
Water and technology can work together to be both the means and the ends.
For example, innovative ideas make it easier for people to collect water when they don’t have a piped supply. What inventions could your pupils think of to help meet water needs?
Water can also be used to provide cheap, clean energy. Both small and large-scale projects can provide sustainable systems to meet technological needs. A great example of a small scheme can be found at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales who use water to power their cliff railway. Large ventures such as hydroelectric dams can even power big towns bringing energy to many people. However, there can also be negative impacts. Re-routing a river thorough a dam can result in less water flowing downstream. In this case, people who rely on the river as their main water source may find they face a shortage. Students could consider both the benefits and problems that these examples present.
Why teach about water?
Water is a basic human need – but we don’t all have equal access to this essential resource. Teaching about the issues can help children to understand how important water is, why people don’t have equal access to resources and what difficulties this presents. It also allows students to develop concern and understanding for the environment and make decisions on how their actions can influence these areas in the future.
The curriculum has many entry points to teaching about water in subjects such as Geography, English, Maths, Science and Citizenship. It can be easy to add a global dimension to lessons that you have already planned. For example, when discussing weight, why not look at a case study of someone who collects water. You could calculate the weight of the water they carry. Or when studying graphs and percentages look at the number of people that don’t have access to safe drinking water versus the number that do. Water-related photographs could be used as a stimulus for creative writing, or when teaching about electricity you could study hydroelectric dams. In Citizenship you could ask students to research dams and hydro-electric power in the UK, and compare it to systems in other countries.
An interactive world map showing the world’s water flashpoints.
A range of articles on the theme of water, including a facts and figures
Information on appropriate technologies and low cost sanitation approaches
Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP)
Some excellent case studies from the UK and other countries and teaching activities related to water and sustainable development.
Background information on water-related issues, fact-sheets and teaching resources for all ages in WaterAid's Learn Zone.