1.1 Where does this problem exist?

Lesson Overview

Guiding question:

Where Does The Problem Exist

1 hour


This lesson contextualizes and introduces the problem of water scarcity on our planet and introduces the unit’s driving question, “What can we do to ensure that future generations have access to the clean water they will need to survive?”


The students will be exposed to stories and images from across the world of the daily burden of getting and conserving water. Students will then discuss how their relationship with water might be different from other populations and in other countries.

Design Principles:

  • Contextualizing the issue
  • Social Justice

Background Knowledge:

All necessary background knowledge will come from this lesson. 

Common Misconceptions:

Students often believe that water scarcity only exists in underdeveloped African villages. They often do not understand that the water crisis affects developed cities, such as Cape Town, and prosperous countries.



Unit Connections:



  • Teacher slides 1.1 Where Does The Problem Exist

  • Lesson Set 1 Answer Keys


Student material:
1.1 Student Sorting Activity (recommend 1 set per group or access to them digitally)


Optional Activity: 1.1 The Water Burden

Instructional Sequence

Materials: Teacher Slides 1.1 Where does the problem exist?

Introduce the problem through an anchoring phenomenon (slides 2-12)

Probing Questions

Were you surprised that a city like San Diego could run out of water? 

How would you be affected if our city claimed we were approaching day zero? 

How would our school be different if we had to limit water or follow “if it’s yellow, let it mellow?”

Is this problem only happening in Africa?

  • On slide 3, we recommend stopping at 3:20.
  • Slide 10 is a video of images of the Southwest United States drying up. It can be skipped to save time if necessary. 

Discourse opportunity: Class discussion

Relationship with water card sort (slide 13)

1.1 Student Card Sort

Pair or group students if not already done so. Each group of students should have a set of cards. These can be digital or hard copies. 

Students are going to look at the 15 images and descriptions and spend about 10 minutes grouping them by any theme that comes up. The students should have autonomy over the themes they choose, but to scaffold students’ thinking, suggest that students look at the subjects’ relationship to water. 

Class Discussion (slides 14-15):

After the students have sorted the cards, have groups share the themes they encountered. As students share, make a list of themes.

Anticipated themes are recreation, the necessity of life, science professions, easy to access, hard to access, etc. These themes will build the notion that water is everywhere but not necessarily accessible to everyone. 

After the list of themes is compiled, or the class is struggling to generate themes, lead the class in a discussion if access to water is a human right.

If the class is struggling…

Have students revisit their sorting cards, and pose the prompt, “Let’s say that access to clean drinking water is a human right. Which images show that right, which do not, and which ones can you not tell?”

After a few minutes of small group discussion, have students share how they determined if the subjects in the pictures had access to water. 

Use class discussions as an informal check.

What to look for?

Students understanding the global nature of the issue, that it is not only in desert landscapes that water accessibility is an issue. Although the citizens of desert areas feel water scarcity more acutely, major, developed cities also struggle to manage their water.

Discourse opportunity:
Class discussion

The Water Burden

Materials: 1.1 The Water Burden Worksheet


Students will use the links provided on the worksheet to explore more stories of the different relationships to water across the world. Students will reflect on what is sacrificed when water is not easily accessible.

Where you surprised that a city like San Diego could run out of water?

How would you be affected if our city claimed we were approaching day zero?

How would our school be different if we had to limit water or follow “if it’s yellow, let it mellow?”

Is this problem only happening in Africa?

Notes in blue are recommendations for timing. The recommendations offer additional activities or point out areas that can be cut if time is limited.

Notes in yellow are pointing out assessment opportunities. Assessment Opportunities are included in expendables and outline what to look for in the assessment along with how to use the assessment.

Notes in green highlight design principles and how the recommended activity support growth in this area. These notes also highlight skills or languagethe design principles use throughout the unit or all of Grand Challenges.

Call out discourse opportunities in red

DP – Social Justice:

In order to understand what is lost when there is not access to water, students should encounter these stories. The water burden disporportionately falls on women and girls, and with this time-consuming and physically demanding task, girls are forced to miss school to collect water.

Information for Planning & Teaching

  • Background Knowledge
  • Lesson Timing
  • Student ideas & Experiences
  • Science Practices
  • Teaching Cases

Background Knowledge:

The Cape Town water crisis, which occurred from 2015 to mid-2018, refers to a severe water shortage that plagued the city of Cape Town, South Africa. The crisis was primarily caused by a combination of factors, including a prolonged drought, population growth, and inadequate water management. This drought resulted from below-average rainfall and the influence of climate change. To combat the crisis, Cape Town implemented strict water restrictions and consumption limits for households and businesses. These measures aimed to conserve water and prevent the city from reaching “Day Zero,” the hypothetical day when the water supply would be completely depleted. The crisis had significant impacts on the community, including socioeconomic challenges, health concerns, and environmental consequences. However, the government, residents, and various stakeholders responded with resilience, implementing water-saving practices and raising awareness about water conservation. The Cape Town water crisis serves as an important case study, highlighting the need for sustainable water management, proactive planning, and the lessons learned that can be applied to address future water-related challenges.

Lesson Timing

Student ideas & Experiences

Although this lesson uses the Cape Town Water Crisis as the launching phenomenon, students will most likely already have experiences relating the water scarcity and quality. We recommend using what students already know to introduce new topics as much as possible.

For example, students who are familiar with Mexico or who have family there will be aware not everyone in Mexico has access to clean and safe drinking water. Depending on their experiences, they might also know that this lack of access disproportionately affects marginalized communities, including those in rural areas and informal settlements. Although Mexico has come a long way in treating the Cholera outbreaks that were common before 2000, problems with infrastructure and water treatment still exist.

The instructor can use this background knowledge to facilitate a conversation about how water quality and availability are problems across the world. Therefore, we should learn about this issue because it can affect any one of us.

Other ideas students might come to the classroom with include water availability in California, type of irrigation methods that conserve or use excess water, and lead contamination from the pipes in Flint, Michigan. Additionally, students might have seen the movie Erin Brockovich which is about the groundwater contamination crisis in Hinkley, California, due to carcinogens polluting the water from Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

Science Practices

Teaching Cases