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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Your Water Footprint is Bigger Than You Think

Before I went out of town for summer instructor training, a friend and fellow Air Force wife asked me if I would be interested in volunteering at an upcoming event she was organizing. Amanda is the education coordinator for the 4H program in Valdosta and visits county classrooms delivering environmental and agricultural lessons and organizes camps and workshops at the cooperative extension (yes, I am very envious of her job...). The upcoming event was a "Water Day," with educational presentations and activities relating to water in the morning and water games such as relay races and a slip-n'-slide in the afternoon. Obviously, Amanda did not have to ask twice for my participation.

In thinking about what I would teach on Water Day, I considered several lessons I had prepared and taught previously, but each was focused on a particular (non-Georgian) location. I decided to write a new lesson based on topics drawn from several previous water conservation lessons that I had taught. Truly, this lesson was born from one tiny aspect of a lesson prepared by the Albuquerque Water Utility that I used in my middle school classroom. That lesson was primarily focused on how much water is involved in producing electricity for Albuquerque, but they included 3 or 4 slides containing the amount of water that goes into the production of some common products like jeans and sodas. These amounts are staggering and surprising, enough so that it makes one wonder about other products and may even inspire lifestyle changes. And so, I wrote this lesson expanding on the concept of a "Water Footprint."

Lesson Plan: Your Water Footprint is Bigger Than You Think
Grades: 6-9
Time: 45 minutes

Objective: Educate students about the "hidden" water used in the production and transportation of products and food and to inspire consideration of alternative choices that could decrease the size of an individual's water footprint.

Materials: Apple, Knife, 1 gallon of drinking water, printed slides and handouts (Water Footprint Powerpoint)


  1. Start off with the well-known "apple as the world" activity to demonstrate that despite the earth being 75% water, water (and land) resources are limited. Cut the apple into quarters, one quarter represents the land component of earth. Cut the quarter representing land in half, put one half to the side - this represents deserts, mountains, tundra, swamps and other areas that are uninhabitable. The other 1/8 sized piece is land that people inhabit. Cut this piece into fourths, making 1/32 sized sections and set three aside. These three 1/32 pieces represent places people live but are too steep, rocky, cold, wet, dry, or have poor soil, or are covered with cement and development and therefore cannot produce food. The single 1/32 sized remaining piece is land that produces food. So, it is obvious land is scarce, but 3/4 of earth is water! How can water be scarce? Well, only 3% of all that water is freshwater. Of that 3%, 2/3 is frozen... so only 1% of all the water on Earth is available for drinking and food production.
  2. Discuss desalination with students. Some people may point out that salt can be removed from water and therefore we cannot run out of water. But, desalination requires large amounts of energy, so one scarce resource (water) is being produced by using up another scarce resource (energy), making the process an unsustainable solution to water scarcity. Additionally, desalination plants are on coasts and the water must be transported inland, using up even more energy.
  3. Fresh water is scarce - availability is shrinking, demand per person is growing, and the human population is really growing! The consumption of water by humanity is no longer sustainable and places around the world are suffering; rivers are running dry, water levels in lakes are dropping, and species are becoming endangered and extinct.
  4. So, how much water is each of us really using? It doesn't feel like very much because most of the water we use is "hidden." As humans, we need to drink 8 glasses of water a day, but we actually consume 25,600 glasses per day. This equates to 583,000 gallons per year! Pass around the gallon of drinking water for students to feel and see how much water a gallon really is. It is difficult to visualize and grasp how much water 583,000 gallons really is. Try to picture thousands of gallon containers stacked up. How much space would they take up? Does it feel like you use that much water? No! That is because 95% of water consumed is "hidden water."
  5. Where is all this hidden water? There are two categories of hidden water: your direct water footprint and your indirect footprint. The direct footprint is much easier to see and understand. This is water that you use directly, like flushing the toilet, washing dishes, taking a shower, watering the lawn. Have students brainstorm components of their direct footprint. 
  6. The indirect footprint is more difficult to see and understand; this includes all the water involved in manufacturing, producing, packaging, and transporting our food and goods. Have students brainstorm specific sources of indirect water usage (watering crops, extracting fuel, producing vehicles and machines, producing pesticides and fertilizers, etc.). These things add up... to big numbers.
  7. Show slides (product printed on one side and the water footprint printed on the reverse side) of foods and goods and have students guess how much water went into making them. After doing a couple and they start to get the hang of it, they can use thumbs up, thumbs to the side, or thumbs down to vote if the product will have a larger or smaller water footprint than the previous product. See examples below (more slides are included in the full slide show):


  8. Students will likely notice a pattern as your go through these slides. But as you reach the last slide, ask students if they notices things that products with large water footprints have in common. Animal products and processed products generally have larger footprints. Discuss all the steps that go into producing processed foods. Ask which will have a larger footprint, corn chips or corn? Animal products use more water because they are higher on the food chain. They include the water foot prints of each of the organisms that they consume. So which would have a larger water footprint, a carnivore or an herbivore? A carnivore or an omnivore? A plant or a plant-eater? If students are not seeing these patterns on their own, show them this graph that I made to help students visualize the pattern: Water Foot Print Bar Graph
  9. Calculating an individuals water foot print is actually quite complicated and uses computer models (think lots of calculus). You can use these models to calculate your water footprint using the quick or extended water footprint calculator provided provided by You can also do a quick calculation of the water you use in the bathroom in an average day (see handout from slideshow). Have students calculate how much water each of them uses in the bathroom each day and then have a student collect everyone's totals and add them up to find out how much the class uses in the bathroom in one day! It will be a lot. 
  10. Now it is time to consider how to reduce our water footprint and use fresh water more sustainably. Have students get into groups to work together to brainstorm ideas for reducing their direct and indirect water footprints. Remind students to come up with realistic ideas; it is probably not realistic to suggest replacing your home toilets (expensive!), but it is feasible to replace shower heads!
  11. Bring the class back together and have each group read their two best ideas. Discuss ideas as your go around. Some ideas I have heard include: turn off water when brushing teeth, xeriscaping, don't water lawn during the day, turn off the water when washing dishes, use a dishwasher, make sure dishwasher is full, take shorter showers, eat local food, eat more vegetables, have hens to for eggs, keep goats or cows for milk, hunt for your own meat, eat vegetarian or vegan, eat organic, shop at thrift stores, shop less, use products and foods that have smaller water footprints, use local products (soap, honey, jams from farmers' market)
  12. Debrief: Was it difficult to come up with ideas to reduce your footprint? Was it harder to come up with direct or indirect water saving ideas? Was there anything you knew would reduce your footprint, but you don't want to do (take shorter showers, drink tea instead of coffee)? Are some uses of water more important/better than others? Will you actually carry out any of the ideas you came up with? Should products be labeled with their water footprints? 
Extension: Students can write a detailed action plan to reduce the water footprint of their school or camp. The action plan can be presented to the principal or camp director and suggested changes can be implemented and enforced by students.

This lesson went really well with the group I presented it to. The students were shocked by how much water was used in the production of food and manufactured goods and appeared really interested in minimizing the amount of freshwater they consume. We had an interesting discussion about actions we could take, but don't really want to - like taking shorter showers; sometimes doing good takes sacrifice. 

I also came to some realizations about eating and culture in the south. Despite our conversations about trophic levels and the water footprints of animal products, not a single group of students wrote down vegetarianism as a means to reduce their indirect footprint. Amanda suggested this idea to a group when I was close enough to overhear, and their response was as comical as it was disturbing. Overall, the students were shocked and appalled at the suggestion and wondered aloud how or why anyone would be vegetarian. I told them that I am a vegetarian and they looked at me like an alien and asked how I ever feel full. The most vocal girl in the group declared that a meal is not a meal if it does not have meat, that she eats meat at every single meal, and that salads are only side dishes. The truth is that I was just as horrified by her diet as she was by mine. When I relayed this story to Jamie, he was unsurprised. He also noted how many overweight people there are in our new town.. 

I feel lucky to have had this opportunity to interact with local students and they really were a great bunch. On the actually "water day," it was pouring and all games had to played inside in the barn. The slip-n'-slide, water guns, and water balloons were left in the closet. Despite this, the kids maintained a really positive attitude, participated actively, and seemed to have a blast playing games inside. I really hope I get to work with this group again sometime. Maybe eventually I will convert an avid Georgian meat consumer into an environmental vegetarian...