Unit 3: Social Science of Water


Unit 3: Social Science of Water


Congratulations! You have completed the first two units of the "Water: Science and Society" course. Having done so, you are prepared to tackle some serious issues with respect to fresh-water resources, both in the U.S. and globally. Unit 3 comprises four modules (7-10) that are spread over five weeks of the semester. These modules present an overview of the water supply challenges that face society now and in the future, and prompt you to explore possible solutions to those challenges.

Module 7 ("What's In Your Water?") delves into the role of water as a "universal solvent" and the problems that its ability to dissolve and transport nearly any potential chemical pollutant present for drinking water quality, water quality in natural environments, and agricultural activities. The module offers several short "case studies" whereby human activities alter the chemistry of surface- and/or groundwater, creating toxic conditions for humans and wildlife (e.g., so-called "dead zones" in coastal regions), and asks you to consider possible solutions to these and other water quality problems through regulation or process changes.

Module 8 ("Cities in Peril: Dealing with Water Scarcity, Part 1: History and Current Approaches, and Part 2: Future Growth and Climate Change") covers two weeks of the course and focuses on the problems of major population centers with respect to acquiring clean drinking water. Understandably, the problem is more extreme for large cities located in arid regions (e.g., Los Angeles, CA or Las Vegas, NV), but is not governed simply by water availability. Infrastructure construction and maintenance is another related issue. There is also strong pressure on fresh water availability from prolonged drought, which could result from global climate change. The second part of Module 8 introduces climate change as a factor, what we understand now, and how well we can predict future changes.

In Module 9 ("Water and Politics: International Issues") we entertain the human penchant for laying claim to water resources, and the need to fairly "share" resources in cases where rivers (or groundwater basins) cross international borders (or in some cases, rivers that are the basis for international borders), while also protecting water quality. Are old treaties adequate as governments change and populations grow? Will we experience further "water wars?" The Nile River in northeast Africa and the Colorado River in western North America are good examples.

Module 10 ("Solving the Water Crisis? Potential Solutions to Problems with Water Scarcity and Quality") is the culmination of the course, bringing together diplomacy, economics, and technology to explore potential solutions for fresh water shortages. Some of these solutions, although elegant and high-tech, will not be feasible where funding and energy are in short supply. You will evaluate these possibilities and recommend a path forward.


Unit Goals

Upon completion of Unit 3 students will be able to:

  • Describe the two-way relationship between water resources and human society.
  • Explain the distribution and dynamics of water at the surface and in the subsurface of the Earth.
  • Synthesize data and information from multiple reliable sources.
  • Interpret graphical representations of scientific data.
  • Identify strategies and best practices to decrease water stress and increase water quality
  • Thoughtfully evaluate information and policy statements regarding water resources
  • Communicate scientific information in terms that can be understood by the general public
  • Predict how the availabilty of and demand for water resources is expected to change over the next 50 years