Want your students to take water conservation seriously? Show them what life is like with significantly less of it.
Disclaimer: As for any activity that’s meant to give students an appreciation for something they have, it’s meant to be used in circumstances where students do in fact have that thing to take for granted. Don’t do a faux water restriction activity with students who are regularly affected by droughts or water restrictions — neither they nor their parents will likely appreciate as a learning tool a difficulty that they already go through and know plenty about.
This morning marks just short of a week on tight water restrictions in my new town of residence in Western Mass. Irene knocked out the water pumps here, there were some concerns about sanitation after sewage was flooded out from the nearby city and washed into one of the local major rivers, there was word of a boil order…luckily, one of the two wells for the town are operating again, storage tanks are refilling, and soon the water restrictions will likely be called off.
My flatmate and I already had two bulk packs of bottled water, which we had purchased before Irene hit, thinking it was just going to be a matter of a power outage that many of the town’s residents were prepping for like any other extended family-bonding opportunity, flashlights and boardgames and prepared no-heat no-chill food at the ready. We’ve used it to drink, fill the cat’s dish, and in one case boil a pot of pasta (when there was no more food in the house that wouldn’t require more dishes that we’ve been trying not to wash). I haven’t done laundry since I came back from evacuation, though today I’m going into the “city” (to a NYer, more akin to a major town than a city), which is not under water restrictions, and spending a few hours at the laundromat. We have a few plants that need watering, so I filled up an empty plastic bottle at work (city) and have been using that. Let’s not even talk about showers — though I never thought shower tactics would be the information I would take away from an article I read years ago about life in arctic research stations.
Is everyone taking these water restrictions so seriously? It depends. A few of the restaurants in town shut down for a few days because it so dented their ability to operate. The little coffee shop has a long list of things they cannot serve or do because of the water they take to prep or clean, and the bathroom is restricted to customers only. Some families have cut back their baths, some are only doing laundry when absolutely necessary or doing it out of town. Some might not be doing any of this at all. (I know Colleen has been nearly pulling her hair out over some occasions of excessive and unnecessary laundry-doing near her.)
But let me tell you — I have never had such a cause to reassess my usage of what was once, to me, a very basic and overlooked element in my life. And I have a feeling that if your students needed to try this even for a few days, they would take water conservation more seriously, maybe even pay more attention to lessons on the water table or news stories about droughts and water shortages.
It’s important to note that this could happen for any number of reasons, even in places we don’t expect. Natural disasters, chemical spills, heat waves, water contamination…I’ve heard the opinion that if one does not live in a drought-laden area there is no need to worry about water supply. To this end, a mock water restriction activity might fall best after a lesson on the water table (even a brief overview, if science is not the subject at hand but is important to understand, say, a global studies issue) and during or before lessons on water conservation.
There are a number of ways to try an activity like this, but I would recommend getting parents involved if possible. If it’s for a larger unit, or in response to a major event, one could even try getting a whole grade level or school involved — depending on the grade. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for young students; for a first or second grader this might be extreme. But middle school, high school, upper elementary, college? It depends on your students.
Have your students sign a pledge that they will try their best to stick to this activity on their own time. Some elements of the activity might include:
- keeping a log for a day/week prior to water restrictions of when they use water and approximately how much (or for how long, i.e. a running faucet)
- keeping a log during their water restrictions of when they use water and approximately how much (or how long), both for comparison and for accountability
- in-class or at-home journal opportunities to reflect on the experience
How long should it last? A day? Three days? A week? Again, that’s up to the impact you want it to have on your students and the time you’re willing to spend on the material.
What do you do with the experience when it’s over? Talk about why students might actually find themselves without the luxury of all that water, whether it be a plausible situation in their own home town or a matter of time and place. Talk about people and places in the news that are living without water — most in worse conditions than we could experience even under strict mandatory water restrictions or boil orders. Talk about what made students the most uncomfortable about not having access to the water they usually use — but ask them if they noticed any water they’ve been using that they could cut back. (Did they used to leave the water running while they were brushing their teeth, washing their face, pumping soap to wash their hands?)
Most of all, don’t just let it go once it’s over — make the experience count for something. Check on their water use now and again via conversation, or do another water log later in the year so students can see if they’ve changed their water usage. Students can have a great role as leaders here if you ask them, simply, “What should we do with this experience,” or “What can we do about water conservation.” They might make a poster list of things they can do to conserve water, sign a pledge, or start a school-wide educational campaign. They might turn it into service-learning and raise money for drought-stricken areas. (People pledge money as students try to be “homeless” for a day in school gyms, or fast for world hunger — a water restriction activity might be used in a similar way.)
Again, this is something that would require some level of parental involvement, at least notification, and a certain level of honesty from your students. And it will not necessarily be pleasant. But if they’re up for the challenge, I highly recommend it — if only to give them a new appreciation for one of the things that many of them may well take for granted.