Global challenges, local solutions: the role of out-of-school education in addressing the SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation)

Education Outside the Classroom can help students grasp the crucial role of water in our day-to-day lives and learn about the ways to preserve its health and address other water issues.

By Nathália Helena Azevedo (University of Groningen) & Kamila Jessie Sammarro Silva (University of Sao Paulo)

Water is an indispensable resource on our planet, enveloping approximately 71% of the Earth's surface. Despite its seeming abundance, only a tiny fraction constitutes freshwater, and the distribution of this vital resource is uneven. Beyond simple consumption, the daily use of water is integral to human life, spanning activities such as agriculture, industry, and sanitation - information familiar to many of us. 

As the global population continues its upward trajectory, the water demand intensifies, placing strain on existing sources. A valuable tool for gauging this impact is the water footprint concept. This approach has emerged to evaluate the direct and indirect water usage associated with various processes, products, companies, or sectors. It encompasses water consumption and pollution considerations across the production cycle, from the supply chain to the end user. 

Recognising and reducing water footprint is pivotal for sustainable water management and fostering a more environmentally equitable future globally. Yet, this requires a form of learning that surpasses the typical factual and reductionist education commonly found in schools. In this context, we present an overview of the challenges and some potential solutions to address water issues in alignment with Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6: Clean Water & Sanitation), emphasising the role of education outside the classroom. 

Between droughts and sewage: the harsh global reality of contaminated water and the need for the SDG 6

The latest findings from WHO and UNICEF highlight a global challenge, revealing that 2 billion people currently lack access to safely managed drinking water, while a staggering 3.6 billion individuals, nearly half of the world's population, lack safely managed sanitation facilities in their homes. This issue goes beyond mere statistics, extending also into realms of gender inequality, exemplified by challenges in menstrual health and the fact that women are often tasked with collecting water in households where sources are off-premises. 

In addition to these challenges, recent concerns have arisen regarding water quality, particularly micropollutants and emerging contaminants. Issues such as PFAS (per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and microplastics have been detected in water sources despite well-established treatment technologies and regular monitoring. Unfortunately, low- and middle-income countries and war regions face heightened vulnerabilities, often relying on self-supplied and self-managed water sources within households, more susceptible to contamination from untreated sewage discharges and poorly managed settings. This, in turn, contributes to elevated levels of pathogens, including coliform bacteria and parasites. 

While the situation may warrant straightforward engineering solutions, it poses a complex challenge for remote areas and regions lacking basic water supply, sanitation infrastructure, and proper hygiene settings. The root of this inequality often stems from an insufficient commitment from authorities and institutions, compounded by ineffective behaviour change measures. Consequently, unsafe drinking water remains a significant cause of mortality and morbidity, mainly due to enteric infections, disproportionately affecting children. Recognising the urgency of this issue, SDG6 emphasises the need for universal and equitable access to potable water and sanitation. 

It is imperative to underscore the importance of cultivating a local-global dialogue to resolve this pressing issue. This dialogue integrates local wisdom with global perspectives, fostering a comprehensive approach to water-related challenges. Recognising the significance of water footprint and advocating for environmental justice becomes particularly pertinent in regions where water accessibility is generally abundant. By harmonising local practices with global insights, we can strive for sustainable solutions that address immediate concerns and contribute to the overall resilience and equity in water resource management. 

In the face of these global water challenges, it becomes evident that addressing water scarcity, sanitation, and quality is a matter of environmental concern and a crucial element in shaping the educational landscape for future generations. As we grapple with the complexities of water-related problems, it is imperative to incorporate interdisciplinary approaches that empower the next generation with the knowledge and skills needed to tackle these pressing issues head-on.  

Curriculum and challenges in fostering water literacy

The study of water and its importance for life is crucial for scientific education. Throughout school, students learn about water's characteristics, its role as a universal solvent, its different states, its basic properties, and the hydrological cycle. Scientific education also covers water's functions in living organisms, its distribution on Earth, its involvement in energy generation and food security, and its connection to weather and climate, including its impact on landscape formation. Beyond enhancing scientific literacy, studying water aims to make students aware of environmental challenges like pollution, distribution, and scarcity, fostering responsibility for sustainable water resource management. 

Learning about water goes beyond a scientific concept; it serves as a common thread weaving together various aspects of knowledge, contributing to an integrated and holistic education. However, despite the interdisciplinary approach involving natural sciences, geography, mathematics, and environmental issues, challenges exist in providing a comprehensive understanding of water as a vital resource. Research literature highlights difficulties in water literacy. 

Conceptually, evidence shows that children often struggle to explain water-related processes, holding alternative conceptions about evaporation, condensation, and molecular theory. Students commonly describe water's properties and cycles in physical terms, lacking a deep abstract understanding. 

Inadequate comprehension of water and its significance in life processes leads to uncertain conceptions about biological concepts. Moreover, there is a low understanding of key concepts related to aquatic ecosystems, resource utilisation, water pollution, and decision-making processes. Studies also suggest resistance to assimilating new water-related concepts as children progress through school grades. 

In summary, the limited understanding of scientific terms related to water is apparent in various educational settings and age groups. Like with other scientific concepts, abstract models of water-related phenomena frequently don't align with children's everyday experiences. Acknowledging this, there's an urgent need to meaningfully educate new generations about water and its management. Research indicates that students often intepret phenomena based on their educational background and everyday experiences, underscoring the necessity for diverse educational approaches. 

Rivers of knowledge: education outside the classroom for water literacy

Understanding water goes beyond mere facts; it comes to life through hands-on experiences. Envision students visiting local reservoirs, actively participating in water conservation efforts, analysing water quality, and engaging in projects to rejuvenate nearby aquatic ecosystems. 

Water is not a substance; it holds a pivotal place in diverse cultural and historical narratives. To comprehend its significance, teachers can integrate local stories into lessons - folk tales, traditional ceremonies, and ancient water practices - that deepen students' vision of this vital resource and their local/global communities. 

Education transcends individual subjects; it is an interdisciplinary journey. Consider projects integrating natural sciences to understand water quality, social sciences to explore community impacts of water policies, and arts expressing water experiences. This comprehensive approach helps students view water challenges locally and globally. 

Leaving the classroom setting often stimulates critical thinking. Students who perceive water as interconnected with the environment can enhance essential problem-solving skills. Visits to locations illustrating water resource challenges, equitable distribution, and strategies for extreme weather events can provide valuable insights. 

Student-centred learning, a focal point in education outside the classroom, can be practical and socially relevant. Envision students installing rainwater harvesting systems or organising awareness campaigns about water footprints. These projects can cultivate a caring attitude toward water resources. 

Context matters in changing perspectives. Using a STSE (Science, Technology, Society, and Environment) approach, education outside the classroom can challenge students to consider water footprints a global issue. Visits to specific sites and discussions with experts highlighting ethical dilemmas related to water and connecting them with social, technological, and scientific aspects are also potential avenues. 

These non-exhaustive ideas illustrate the principles of education outside the classroom that can be expanded and adapted, ensuring that water literacy becomes a meaningful educational experience for students. The local-global approach can be explored through concepts such as water footprint, bridging the gap between community-level practices and global implications. Education outside the classroom can catalyse a transformative learning experience around water issues on various scales. 

Teachers are key in contextualising water-related challenges, integrating local narratives, and inspiring critical thinking. By embracing this approach, education can become a powerful tool in dialogue with SDG6, fostering water literacy and cultivating a generation that values, conserves, and collaborates for more equitable and just water management. 


More information

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Brody, M. J. (1993). Student Understanding of Water and Water Resources: A Review of the Literature. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Atlanta, GA) 

Covitt, B. A., Gunckel, K. L., & Anderson, C. W. (2009). Students' developing understanding of water in environmental systems. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(3), 37-51.

Forbes, C. T., Zangori, L., & Schwarz, C. V. (2015). Empirical validation of integrated learning performances for hydrologic phenomena: 3rd‐grade students' model‐driven explanation‐construction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 895-921.

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Havu-Nuutinen, S., Kärkkäinen, S., & Keinonen, T. (2018). Changes in primary school pupils' conceptions of water in the context of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) instruction. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 27(2), 118-134. 

Österlind, K., & Halldén, O. (2007). Linking theory to practice: A case study of pupils’ course work on freshwater pollution. International Research in Geographical & Environmental Education, 16(1), 73-89.

UNICEF & WHO, 2019. Progress on Household Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2000-2017. Special Focus on Inequalities. /documents/reports/2019-07/jmp-2019-wash-households.pdf.

UNICEF & WHO, 2021. Progress on Household Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2000-2020. Five Years into the SDGs.

United Nations Sustainable Development. (2023). Water and Sanitation. 

Water Footprint Network. (2023). What is a water footprint? 

Global challenges, local solutions: the role of out-of-school education in addressing the SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation)