Water Sustainability Lesson

Adapted from Facing the Future Curriculum

Teacher: Elizabeth Troxell

I currently teach 10th Grade World History and Your World in the 21st Century elective at Penns Valley Area School District. I have been teaching for six years and created Your World in the 21st Century elective to educate my students about current global issues. When designing this course, I researched many curriculums and found “Facing the Future” curriculums to be the best. The lesson below is an adapted lesson for this curriculum based on water sustainability. I designed this lesson for grades 9-12 but it could be easily accommodated to fit the needs of other ages and educational plans.

Objective: Students will be able to understand that water is a finite natural resource whose quantity and quality must be responsibly preserved, protected, used, and reused.

Essential Questions

  1. Why is water scarce in some areas of the world?
  2. How can good choices about water support sustainability?


  1. improved sanitation
  2. hydrological cycle
  3. renewable resource
  4. finite
  5. water footprint
  6. virtual water
  7. water audit

History Connections

World History Connections: Irrigation and the rise of the great civilizations; historical examples of water resource depletion; conflict over water resources

Economics connections: Agriculture, industry, and domestic water use; economic water scarcity; lack of water and economic development; water privatization

Geography connections: Climate change and resource availability; geography and resource distribution; hydrology; physical water scarcity

Civics connections: Personal and structural solutions to water issues

Standards (Explanations Included)

National Council for the Social Studies (Thematic Standards)

3. People, Places, and Environments: Social studies teachers should possess the knowledge, capabilities, and dispositions to organize and provide instruction at the appropriate school level for the study of People, Places, and Environments.

7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption: Social studies teachers should possess the knowledge, capabilities, and dispositions to organize and provide instruction at the appropriate school level for the study of how people organize for the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of goods and services.

National Science Education Standards

E. Science and Technology: Abilities of Technological Design: Identify a problem or design an opportunity. Propose designs and choose between alternative solutions. Implement a proposed solution.  Evaluate the solution and its consequences.  Communicate the problem, process, and solution. Understandings about Science and Technology: Scientists in different disciplines ask different questions, use different methods of investigation, and accept different types of evidence to support their explanation.Science often advances with the introduction of new technologies.Creativity, imagination, and a good knowledge base are all required in the work of science and engineering. Science and technology are pursued for different purposes. Scientific inquiry is driven by the desire to understand the natural world. Technological design is driven by the need to meet human needs and solve human problems.Technological knowledge is often not made public because of patents. Scientific knowledge is made public through presentations at professional meetings and in scientific journals.

F. Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Personal and Community Health:

Hazards and the potential for accidents exist. Humans can reduce and modify hazards.

The severity of disease symptoms is dependent on human resistance and the virulence of the disease- producing organism.Personal choice concerning fitness and health involves multiple factors. An individual’s mood and behavior may be modified by substances. The abuse of illegal drugs can result in physical dependence and can increase the risk of injury, accidents, and death.Selection of foods and eating patterns determine nutritional balance. Families serve basic health needs, especially for young children.Sexuality is basic to the physical, mental, and social development of humans. Population Growth: Populations grow or decline through the effects of births, deaths, emigration, and immigration. Population growth affects the resources used and environmental pollution.Sociological factors (cultural norms, percentage of women who are employed, birth control methods) influence birth rates and fertility rates. Populations can limit growth.Carrying capacity is the maximum number of people in relation to resources and the capacity of Earth systems to support human beings. Natural Resources: Human populations use resources in the environment in order to maintain and improve their existence.The Earth does not have infinite resources; increasing human consumption places severe stress on the natural processes that renew some resources, and it depletes those resources that cannot be renewed.  Students should understand the appropriateness and value of basic questions “What can happen?” “What are the odds?” Humans have a major effect on other species. For example, the influence of humans on other organisms occurs through land use, which decreases space available to other species, and pollution, which changes the chemical composition of air, soil, and water.

National EfS Standards

2.2 Ecological Systems: Respect for Nature:  Respect for Limits – Students collect data in order to investigate and analyze how personal consumption patterns affect the sustainability of natural and human communities. Respect for Nature – Students participate in outdoor education activities to explore and experience the natural environment and enrich their connection with and appreciation for nature. They read nature-related poetry/writings and discuss and compare the authors’ styles and impact on themselves and society. Biomimicry – Students design a product or service to address a problem or issue using one or more characteristics from a plant or animal. Tragedy of the Commons – Students identify local and global “commons”, choose one “commons” and debate with their peers the question, “How can this commons be managed in a way that ensures future generations have the opportunity to use and enjoy it, indefinitely?”

Environmental Justice – Students identify an environmental justice issue in their community (e.g. location of toxic waste facility in poor neighborhood) and write an article (or blog) for the school or local paper that includes possible solutions to remedy the injustice. Urban Design/Land Management – Students develop a sustainable land-use plan for an un- or under- developed property or place in their community that provides for a healthy environment, economy, and society. Students identify the natural capital of a local or global resource and create graph depicting their relative worth.

2.3 Economic Systems: Ecosystem Services: Poverty – Students explain the history, causes and potential solutions to poverty in the U.S. and around the world through using the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.Ecosystem Services – Students choose an ecosystem and list the existing and potential services (products and processes) that it provides to humans. Alternative Indicators and Indexes of Progress – Students investigate, use, and compare alternative indicators of social and economic progress (e.g. Genuine Progress Indicator) with traditional economic indicators (e.g. Gross Domestic Product) to determine the health and well-being of their local community. Globalization – Students describe the pros and cons of globalization and how a globalized world contributes to and detracts from sustainability.

True (or full) Cost Accounting – Students choose a product or service and list its hidden social and environmental costs. Triple Bottom Line – Students conduct an analysis of a business operation in terms of environmental, economic, and social/cultural factors. Micro Credit – Students investigate a micro-credit organization’s operations in a community and analyze how that operation contributes to the community’s long-term sustainability.

3.1 Personal Action: Personal Responsibility – Students identify and commit to a personal sustainability action and they write about the results of that action. (e.g.: using public transportation, reducing and recycling). Accountability – After completing a thorough ecological footprint or product trail assessment of a product or service that they use, students identify alternate products or strategies for more responsible use. They develop a means for measuring the net progress of the product or strategy alternative. Lifelong Learning and Action – Students write their own “story of learning” in which they describe how best they learn and move to action, where they learn and act both in and outside of school, and their strengths as a learner and doer. Personal Change Skills and Strategies – Students identify what systems and strategies work best at self-motivating planning and action for effective personal change.

3.2 Collective Action: Community-Based and Societal Decision-Making: Local to Global Responsibility – Student describe the difference between a local and global problem, how the problems might be connected and how a potential solution to each could require different actions (at different levels – ranging from the local to the global). Students then take at least one action and analyze the results and lessons learned for future actions. Community-Based and Societal Decision-Making – Students actively participate in local community-based and national and/or international decision-making focused on sustainable development. Public Discourse and Policy – Students communicate their ideas in a public discussion or debate about a topic that furthers local and/or global sustainability, take action on that topic, and reflect upon the results.

Organizational and Societal Change Skills and Strategies – Students identify skills and strategies required to create effective group change for a given issue, take action on that issue and then reflect on lessons learned regarding change strategies.

Personal Water Audit

Time Required: 60-80 minutes

Lesson Questions:

  1. How do I consume water directly and indirectly?
  2. How can I reduce my water consumption?

Reading: Background on Water, The Water Process

Hook: Show students 5 gallons of water. Explain that the UN suggests each person needs about five gallons of water to ensure their basic needs for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Using think-pair-share, ask students to discuss how they would use their 5 gallons of water for one day. Students should list activities they would prioritize and which they would cut.

Teacher Tips: Play devils advocate and ask questions/raise awareness for cleaning dishes, cooling, for food (water crops or feed livestock), and for the manufacture of goods.

Have students order the following products in terms of least to most virtual water used in their production: cotton shirt, pair of jeans, bed sheet, 1 kg of beef, 1 kg of wheat

Share the following information (*Make sure students pay attention to low flow or standard models.): 

  • 1kg of wheat = 1,300 liters of water
  • cotton shirt = 4,100 liters
  • bed sheet = 9,750 liters
  • pair of jeans =10,850 liters
  • 1 kg of beef =15,000 liters

Cross Curricular Option: Have students convert liters to gallons

Activity: Students will complete a water audit by calculating their direct and virtual water use. Students will then take an online quiz to calculate their water footprint. These two calculations will be compared to find out their overall water impact.

Direct Use

Step 1: Have students research the average flow rate for each of the following activities listed below (this may be done as homework):

  • shower
  • faucets
  • toilet
  • bath
  • automatic dishwasher
  • laundry
  • watering yard
  • car washing

Step 2: Monitor your water use by timing how long you use the appliance and how many times you use the appliance a day

Step 3: Calculate your total. For all activities simply multiply the rate of water flow with the total time used. For example:

  • 1.5  gallons/minute  x 15 minutes = 22.5 gallons 
  • 5.2  gallons/flush x 6 flushes = 31.2 gallons

Step 4: Answer the following questions for reflection:

  1. What surprised you most about your personal water use?
  2. What activity do you do that uses the most water? The least water?
  3. Which activities do you consider necessary to meet your basic needs?
  4. What are at least three steps you can take to reduce the amount of water you consume?
  5. How did this audit increase your awareness of water consumption?
  6. What will your next step be with respect to water conservation?

Virtual Use

Step 5: Using the following link,  students will complete a personal water audit to calculate how much water they use on a daily basis.


Have students record the total water consumed. Then instruct students to create a bar graph to compare all categories. Students should summarize and analyze their bar graph in sentence format. Lastly, have students answer the following questions:

  1. What surprised you most about your virtual water consumption?
  2. What goods or products do you use that require the greatest amount of water?
  3. How did you water consumption compare for each of the categories (food, domestic use, industrial) summarized by the Water Footprint’s Extended Calculator?

Summarizer: Using think-pair-share, the following discussion questions can be used:

  1. How does your water footprint compare with the average daily need?
  2. What surprised you most about your water footprint?
  3. How does your direct water use compare with your virtual water use?
  4. Do you think people are aware of how much water they use?
  5. Do you think the amount of virtual water should be included on product labels? Whose responsible for monitoring the amount of water being used to produce goods: manufacturers, consumers, or the government?
  6. How could today’s water consumption affect the water consumption of future generations?

Water Carry Simulation

Time Required: 60-80 minutes

Lesson Questions

  1. How can gathering water impact a child’s education
  2. What factors contribute to the large amounts of time women and children spend gathering water in water scarce regions?
  3. What are the consequences of water scarcity?

Materials Needed:

  • One 5 gallon bucket filled with water
  • Five 1 gallon jugs numbered 1-5 (one per group)
  • Ten 1-cup containers (two per group)
  • 1 ladle

Preparation: If possible, this lesson should be completed outside. (the football field/track is a perfect location) If you must complete this inside, have towels ready for the students to clean up the halls afterwards. You should also get permission from your administrators. (Students will be making many trips with water filled cups so things could get slippery!)

Hook: Show students the five gallon bucket. Explain to the students that each gallon of water weights 8 pounds. Students should then calculate the weight of the bucket (40 lbs). Let students lift the bucket and walk a few steps with it. Ask students how far they think they could comfortably carry it. Share with students that, on average, women in Africa walk about 3.7 miles per day to fetch water. In some parts of Africa, women and children spend 8 hours a day collecting water.

  • If time allows, you can have some fun with students and have each team complete an obstacle course or challenge in groups (each person must go one lap around the track, or whatever team makes it from one end zone to the other on the football field. First team wins.

Step 1: Divide the students into 5 groups and give each group a number. Each group will represent a different household in the African village. Then, distribute two 1 cup container to each group and explain that these will represent their water buckets.

Step 2: Tell the students that each household has about 5 people, so each group needs to gather at least 5 “buckets” of water for survival. However, they would need 10 buckets to maintain good health. Therefore, five buckets may jeopardize someone’s life. Since they only have 2 buckets per household, this will obviously take more than one trip. Explain that each household has a cistern with their group number on it   (the gallon jugs, located in the classroom), where they can dump the water when they get back home.

Step 3: Show them the ladle and explain that for sanitation reasons, the community has agreed that this is the only thing that will touch the water. If the water source gets contaminated, everyone gets sick. Also, explain that waiting in line for the well is part of the water-gathering process for many people.

Step 4: Finally, before allowing students to begin carrying water, tell them that their “school day” begins in 5 minutes.
• Note: no one should be able to make it to school on time!

Step 5: Direct students to their household’s “cistern” (gallon jug). Count down the time until the start of the school day.

Step 6: Once a group reaches a half full gallon container, they may join the class. However, you can remind students that they are risking death for themselves, or one of their family members, if they only fill up their cistern halfway rather than completely.

  • For those that only fill their cistern up half way, have them roll a die to see if everyone lives or dies. Each member should roll a die once. If they roll an even number they live, an odd number they die.

Step 7: As students are finishing up, you should have a school assignment ready for them to complete. This could simply be a reading assignment, or you can have them complete a puzzle based on this concept’s vocabulary and context.  (crossword, word search, etc.).

  • The assignment will be based on your age group and chosen rigor. This could also be a good time to “Connect to Today” (link to current events) and have students read a recent article relating to water sustainability in Africa or Asia.

If students are done early, have them research projects and organizations that are working to increase access to clean water. (Example: Ryan’s Well Foundation)

Step 8: Once each group is finished collecting their water, have them reflect on this activity by answering the following questions:

  1. How would your life be difference if you had to walk at least 3.7 miles a day to get water?
  2. How would this impact you and your family financially? (Long term and Short term)
  3. The task of water collecting often falls to women and girls. How does this contribute to gender inequality?


Compare & Contrast Journal: Think about your water footprint from yesterday. How do you think this number would change if you had to  collect all your water by hand?

Service Learning Project

Time Required: 3 periods

Lesson Question: How can we conserve water at our school?

Overview: Have students estimate water use at your school, using local resources and online water calculators. Then, students can research different products or tools to help with water sustainability. For example, students can go to a local garden center to find out about climate-appropriate landscaping (e.g., drought-tolerant plants, native species), then present their findings to the class, administrators, and/or school board (cross-curricular).


  • Twist on a faucet aerator. Installing a WaterSense labeled aerator is one of the most cost-effective ways to save water. You’ll use 30% less water without a noticeable difference in flow


Have students complete a water audit for their school using the links below:



Have students make a public service announcement, or signs to be hung up around the school in order to educate students about water sustainability. For example:

  • Just by turning off the tap while you brush your teeth in the morning and before bedtime, you can save up to 8 gallons of water!
  • Taking a shower uses much less water than filling up a bathtub. A shower only uses 10 to 25 gallons, while a bath takes up to 70 gallons!
  • If your toilet has a leak, you could be wasting about 200 gallons of water every day. That would be like flushing your toilet more than 50 times for no reason!

Additional Facing the Future Lesson: River to the Sea?—Students explore the differing ideas of water as a right and water as a commodity. After learning about the Colorado River and its place in the hydrology of the western United States, students brainstorm reasons for why the river no longer reaches the sea. After learning about the various uses of water in the region, they make recommendations for water use in the future.

*A good follow up documentary is The Colorado River: Running Near Empty

Additional Documentaries: Flow and Tapped

Additional Resources: www.facingthefuture.org