Unit 1: What is Sustainability in the Context of Water?
In this three to four class unit, students will:
- Assess the case for a global water crisis and its relevance in America.
- Expand their understanding of sustainability as a contestable concept and movement.
- Consider water resource-management objectives through the lens of sustainability.
- Analyze region-specific examples of unsustainable use of water for agriculture.
This is largely achieved via student discussion and evaluation of texts and statistics provided to them. The text and statistics are derived from a variety of disciplines, mostly not from the geosciences. As such, the unit is very interdisciplinary, requiring students to synthesize disparate information and take a holistic perspective on water issues.
Unit 1 is designed to help students advance in achievement of Module Learning Goal 1:
- Students will explain how fresh water availability and management practices pose threats to ecosystem integrity, human well-being, and agricultural production.
The unit also has the following more specific learning objectives.
Upon completion of the unit, students should be able to:
- Evaluate the case for a global water crisis.
- Demonstrate facility in working with student partners in equitable and inclusive collaboration.
- Demonstrate improved ability to organize and present quantitative information.
- Articulate and support their preferred definition of sustainability or sustainable development.
- Use sustainability criteria to identify what is unsustainable in case studies of water resource management.
- Synthesize interdisciplinary information in a holistic analysis of water-related problems.
Context for Use
This unit kicks off the Water, Agriculture, and Sustainability module. It is broken up into three sub-units, each designed to take one 60-minute class period.
- In Unit 1.1 students are confronted with the problems associated with water availability, access, equity, and quality from a global perspective. They are also challenged to work together to evaluate statistics and communicate quantitative information in a graphical way.
- In Unit 1.2 students learn about sustainability as a concept and water management objective. After the readings and participation in the class activity of this sub-unit, students should understand that sustainability is a contestable concept and different approaches to fostering a more secure and just water future are part of a larger ideological conflict.
- Unit 1.3 focuses on case studies of unsustainable water use in agriculture. This provides a segue into the following units, which largely focus on the challenges and options associated with agricultural use of water.
Class Size: This can be adapted for a variety of class sizes. See the Teaching Notes and Tips section for advice on implementing this in large classes.
Class Format: The in-class activities of this unit are designed for working in small groups of 4-6 students. The instructor provides materials such as handouts, flip chart paper, and colored markers and moderates the activities. PowerPoint presentations are provided for class instruction.
Time Required: The in-class activities associated with this unit are designed to take three 1-hour class periods. If the instructor opts to work through the optional slide presentations of Units 1.1 and 1.2, that could stretch out Unit 1 to four 1-hour class periods.
Special Equipment: Unit 1.1 calls for small groups to make graphs using large sheets of paper and colored markers. Units 1.1 and 1.2 recommend that instructors foster online discussions of readings prior to the class periods for those sub-units. If instructors do not have access to online teaching platforms like Blackboard or Canvas, they could try out free online chat services like Google Hangouts.
Skills or concepts that students should have already mastered before encountering the activity: Students can start the module with no shared preparation. Before each in-class activity of this first unit, each student will need to do the assigned readings, participate in the online discussions and (for unit 1.3) complete a homework assignment. This will give them the background necessary to analyze and critique the unit concepts and data.
This unit can stand on its own, if desired. It is appropriate for college students at all levels and majors. It is of particular value in introducing Earth Science majors to the concept of sustainability and the roles of culture, politics, economics, and agriculture in the watery aspects of the Earth system.
Description and Teaching Materials
This unit is broken up into the following 3 sub-units. Each is designed to take a minimum of 1 class period, where a class is assumed to last 1 hour.
Unit 1.1 - Are We Sliding into a Water Crisis? (One 60-minute class period)
Are we in the midst of a water crisis? Is the global situation improving or deteriorating? What are the big issues? This unit delves into these matters and provides the primary justification for having a module devoted to water sustainability. The readings of this unit have a global perspective. As such, they impress upon the students how dire the situation already is in many regions of the world and how the problems are not limited to remote areas. They also highlight how water + sustainability is a highly politicized subject, providing a natural segue to the next sub-unit on sustainability. Participation on the students' part should enhance their critical and holistic thinking, numeracy, and communication and collaboration skills.
Activity 1.1a - Homework: Reading Assignment and Online Discussion on the Water Crisis
Assign homework in preparation for the class period of Unit 1.1b. Students will read 3 short readings, watch a short video, and participate in an online discussion of the readings. The readings and discussion challenge students to assess whether or not our global water situation constitutes a "crisis." Suggested readings and discussion prompts are found in the following guidance document, as are the broader learning goals. Instructors are encouraged to award a small amount of points to students for satisfactory participation in the discussion. If instructors do not have access to online teaching platforms like Blackboard or Canvas, they could try out free online chat services like Google Hangouts.
- Instructor Guidance for Activity 1.1a: Reading and Online Discussion (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Feb27 17)
Activity 1.1b - Group Work: Analyze/Display Water-related Statistics (60 minutes, in class)
The downloadable Word documents below provide context, guidance, and handouts for the Activity 1.1b – Group Work: Analyze/Display Water-related Statistics. The purpose is to get students to work with and discuss water related statistics, causing them to sink in to a greater degree than simply skimming over them in a reading. The activity is also designed to enhance the critical thinking, numeracy, and communication skills of the students. As they review the statistics in small groups, they are asked to do the following:
- Identify a common theme for your water statistics.
- Decide which statistics you think are most important to share with the rest of the class.
- Collaborate in making a poster that illustrates the story or stories you wish to tell with these statistics.
- Make graphical representations of the quantitative data. Provide each graph or figure with a title and a caption. Cite the source of the information.
Each group gets a handout featuring a set of statistics centered around a different theme. By graphically illustrating some of their statistics and sharing them with each other, the entire class will learn more about our global and national level water issues. This activity sets up a discussion about the state of water resources around the world and impacts of water problems on people and ecosystems.
For classes with more than 30 students, you can have two Group 1s, two Group 2s, two Group 3s, etc., so the group sizes don't get too large. For classes with 7-12 students, you can have them work in pairs. If you have <7 students, they will each get their own water statistics handout to digest and illustrate.
- Instructor Guidance for Activity 1.1b: Group Work on Water Statistics (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 47kB Jan23 17)
- Student Handout for Activity 1.1b: Group Work on Water Statistics (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 38kB Aug21 23)
OPTIONAL Activity 1.1c - Interactive Lecture: Overview of the Water Crisis
If desired and there is sufficient time, you can also bounce through the following slide presentation to provide a framework for thinking about water problems and an overview of the geographic variability in water scarcity.
- Slides for 'Are We Sliding into a Water Crisis?' (PowerPoint 3.8MB Feb27 17)
Unit 1.2 - What is Sustainability in the Context of Water? (One or two 60 minute class periods)
If our working presumption is that we want to foster a future with more sustainable water resource management, then we need to get some clarity on what is meant by sustainable, sustainability, and sustainable development. This sub-unit provides an introduction to the concepts of sustainability and relates them to water resource management.
Activity 1.2a - Reading Assignment and Online Discussion of Readings
In preparation for the class period of Unit 1.2, students are assigned 3 readings and asked to participate in an online discussion of the readings. The readings and discussion introduce students to the concept of sustainability, its ethical underpinnings, and how it can relate to water resource problems and management. Suggested readings and discussion prompts are found in the following guidance document, as are the broader learning goals. Instructors are encouraged to award a small amount of points to students for satisfactory participation in the discussion. If instructors do not have access to online teaching platforms like Blackboard or Canvas, they could try out free online chat services like Google Hangouts.
- Instructor Guidance for Activity 1.2a: Reading and Online Discussion (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Jan23 17)
Activity 1.2b - Group Work: Evaluate Definitions of Sustainability and Sustainable Development (60 minutes, in class)
How sustainability is regarded--as a process, an ideal state, or simply nonsense--is dependent on one's culture, ideology, and education. As a consequence of this and the relative youth of the sustainability movement, there is no universally accepted definition of sustainability. Accordingly, students should approach the concept and the writing around it critically. They should not simply accept as gospel their first readings about it or let their initial notions of it fossilize without further investigation. This activity, along with Activities 1.2a and 1.2c, are designed to help foster this deeper exploration into the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development and how proposals meant to foster them serve as ideological flashpoints.
As the activity title suggests, this group work activity has students evaluating various definitions of sustainability and sustainable development. Critical themes of the sustainability and sustainable development concepts are revealed by identifying common (and differing) elements in the various definitions. The first document below provides guidance for the instructor in running Activity 1.2b. The second document below contains the handout to be distributed to each student for this activity.
- Instructor Guidance for Activity 1.2b: Group Work Evaluating Definitions of Sustainability and Sustainable Development (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 144kB Jan23 17)
- Student Handout for Activity 1.2b: Group Work Evaluating Definitions of Sustainability and Sustainable Development (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 142kB Jan23 17)
OPTIONAL Activity 1.2c - Interactive Lecture: Defining Sustainability and Sustainable Development (40-60 minutes, in class)
If you have more time in your class, you can work through as much of the following PowerPoint presentation as you like. It is designed to elaborate on the concepts and controversies embedded in the terms sustainability and sustainable development. It also encourages students to evaluate the Sustainability Criteria for Water in the assigned reading by Peter Gleick et al., 1995 (Ch 3. Water and Sustainability).
The last page in the handout provided with Activity 1.2b above goes with the lecture/slides of Activity 1.2c.
- Presentation Slides for 1.2c - Defining Sustainability and Sustainable Development (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 486kB Jan23 17)
To learn more about sustainability, particularly how cultural theory and political psychology provide insight into the different ideological perspectives that drive conflict over policies and proposals related to sustainability, instructors can access a set of relevant literature in a bibliography included in the References and Resources section below.
Unit 1.3 - Case Studies in Unsustainable Water Use in Agriculture (1 class period)
In this unit we turn our attention to agriculture and its impacts on water resources.
Activity 1.3a - Homework/Reading Assignment on Case Studies in Unsustainable Water Use in Agriculture
In preparation for the class period of Unit 1.3, each student is assigned 1 of 5 readings and asked to consider multiple thinking prompts. Each reading provides an overview of regionally-specific unsustainable water use primarily associated with agricultural practices. Each reading can be accessed in the References and Resources section at the bottom of this page. As part of the assignment, students are asked to come to class prepared to share how the tales of agricultural water use detailed in their reading do not meet the criteria of water sustainability as outlined by Peter Gleick (1998) in his article from the preceding sub-unit (Water in Crisis: Paths to Sustainability). The first document below provides guidance on the activity for the instructor, along with the context and learning objectives for the assignment. The second document below serves as a handout to be distributed to students that walks them through the homework/reading assignment.
- Instructor Guidance for 1.3a - Homework and Reading Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 129kB Aug21 23)
- Student Handout for Activity 1.3a: Homework and Reading Assignment on Case Studies in Water Unsustainability (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 109kB Aug21 23)
Activity 1.3b - Group Analysis of Case Studies in Unsustainable Water Use in Agriculture (60 minutes, in class)
Students participate in a jigsaw activity to discuss the readings (learn more about jigsaws). Students are first divided into groups with students that have had the same reading for the day. Each of these groups are challenged to come to some collective consensus on the water resource problems detailed in their article. They are also prompted to evaluate how the agricultural practices and the associated use of water in their article failed to meet the sustainability criteria outlined by Gleick (1998). Then, the students are shuffled into new groups so that each group has a representative for each of the 5 articles. After each student outlines from their article how water use in agriculture is not sustainable, the groups are challenged to identify the common problems between their articles and then come up with viable solutions for water sustainability in agriculture. The first document below provides guidance for the instructor to run Activity 1.3b, with context, learning objectives and teaching tips for the activity. The second document is the student handout.
- Instructor Guidance for 1.3b - Group Analysis of Case Studies in Water Unsustainability (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 98kB Jan23 17)
- Student Handout for 1.3b - Group Analysis of Case Studies in Water Unsustainability (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 97kB Jan23 17)
This PowerPoint slide presentation can be used to run Activity 1.3b.
- Slides for Activity 1.3b - Case Studies in Water Unsustainability (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 244kB Jan23 17)
Teaching Notes and Tips
Detailed teaching guidance is provided in the various downloadable documents in the section above. The three sub-units should take three 1-hour class days, though an instructor can easily stretch the topics and material out to take more class time. The primary pedagogies involved in this unit are class discussion and group analysis of both quantitative information and texts. Unit 1.3b uses a jigsaw approach. These activities can be run at any class size. For larger class sizes, simply break students up into more groups.
Units 1.1 and 1.2 recommend that instructors foster online discussions of readings prior to the class periods for those subunits. If instructors do not have access to online teaching platforms like Blackboard or Canvas, they could try out free online chat services like Google Hangouts.
Assessment for the learning objectives for this unit, as well as meeting the more content specific objectives listed in the summary at the top of this page, is through student participation in the group work and the online and class discussions. You can do an optional summative assessment for Units 1 and 2 by having students write an essay as a homework assignment following Day 3 of Unit 2. The prompt for the summative essay is provided below.
- Summative assessment: Sustainability in the Context of Water (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Jan23 17)
References and Resources
Unit 1 is based on the following articles.
- Brown, A. and Matlock, M. (2011).A Review of Water Scarcity Indices and Methodologies. The Sustainability Consortium, White Paper #106. University of Arkansas.
- Connor, R, Talafre, J, Hasan, E and Abolina, E (2015). Unsustainable Growth, in The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015: Water for a Sustainable World. World Water Assessment Programme, UNESCO. Pp. 1-14. Water for a Sustainable World (Acrobat (PDF) 4.9MB Mar1 17)
- Corcoran, E., Nellemann, C., Baker, E., Bos, R., Osborn, D., and Savelli, H. (eds) (2010). Sick Water? The Central Role of Wastewater Management in Sustainable Development. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, UN-HABITAT, GRID-Arendal.
- Di Nunzio, J (2013). Conflict on the Nile: The Future of Transboundary Water Disputes Over the World's Longest River. Future Directions International. Conflict on the Nile (Acrobat (PDF) 822kB Mar1 17)
- Fry, A., Martin, R., Haden, E. and Martin, M. (2009). Water Facts and Trends. World Business Council for Sustainable Development. 16p. WBCSD 2009 Water Facts and Trends (Acrobat (PDF) 3.7MB Mar1 17)
- Gleick, P., Gomez, S., Loh, P., and Morrison, J. (1995). Ch. 3 Water and Sustainability, in California Water 2020: A Sustainable Vision. Pacific Institute. Pp. 23-28.
- Hoopes, D. (2004). Sacred Water. Fisheries Magazine, Vol. 29(5), 5p. Sacred Water (Acrobat (PDF) 77kB Jun23 15)
- McKinney, D, Czekanski, AJ, Pitman, SH, Al Awar, Z and Akcay, M (2011). Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in Transboundary Water Challenge: Case Studies. Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State. Pp. 87-94. Transboundary Water Issues (Acrobat (PDF) 3.1MB Mar1 17)
- Postel, S. (1999). Water Wars I: Farms Versus Cities and Nature, in Pillar of Sand. Worldwatch Institute. 14p. Postel reading (Acrobat (PDF) 171kB Jun12 15)
- Symmes, P. (2003). River Impossible. Outside, 28(8):64-68, 108-111. River Impossible (Acrobat (PDF) 573kB Mar1 17)
- Thompson (2008). The Aral Sea Crisis. Columbia University.
- Water Partners International (2016). Facts About Water and Sanitation.
To learn more about sustainability, sustainable development, resilience, cultural theory, political ideology, and environmental ethics instructors can access a set of relevant literature in bibliography below. It is fascinating stuff that helps everyone understand why achieving sustainability is such a challenge.
Bibliography of Literature on Sustainability and Relevant Cultural Theory (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 26kB Jan23 17)