On a recent working visit to Lebanon, my colleague Mona el-Chami was asked by the Wellspring Learning Community if water experts from the Bank would make a presentation* to students on water scarcity and management. The surprise came when the school explained that the audience would be 3rd graders, meaning ages eight to nine. We thought of the old Arabic proverb “Early Learning is akin to Carving in Stone” and off we went to the classroom, armed with a short a presentation and photographs illustrating the water cycle. But we could quickly tell that the water cycle is old news for these children so we quickly shifted gear to more sophisticated challenges, such as water scarcity in the Middle East region, and the pollution and waste that are exacerbating the problem.
The teacher had asked us to especially talk about the issues of physical and economic water scarcity. But in a question and answer session following the presentation it was clear that these young students had absorbed the main concept: there is a fixed amount of water around in the world, and it is being recycled continuously.
And our eager students wanted more, and much more: Why is water scarce in some countries and not in others? How to save water for our future? How to recycle water? How do you know where to find groundwater? Why is there not sufficient water although we have much rain and many rivers?
It was such a wonderful surprise that this group of third graders understood concepts that many adults don’t comprehend. We explained that physical water scarcity exists when there is not enough water available to meet people’s demand for water and how the Middle East and North Africa is struggling with physical water scarcity. Then came the second barrage of questions: Why is water scarce in some countries and not in others? And so we got on to the concept of economic water scarcity when water is available, but there is not enough money to develop the resource. This leaves consumers exposed to unsafe water for drinking, in addition to the scarcity that deprives rural areas of water to irrigate the land.
The children were also very observant: in the pictures we showed them they noted that women and children were carrying water, prompting questions about where the men were: At work and so it’s the women and kids (who cannot afford to go to schools) have to get the water so its scarcity is penalizing them.
The discussion closed around the question: What can they do to help ensure that there is enough clean water around? Brush their teeth with a cup instead of letting the water run, take shorter showers, put trash where it belongs and not where it would end up in rivers and the sea. Our classroom visit was a learning experience for us as much as it was for the children and culminated in the children designing a set of animated presentations on water and its impact on our lives.
*The presentation was given by Caroline Van Den Berg and Sana Agha Al Nimer