Educator Spotlight: Increasing Awareness of Water Scarcity

Frieda de Bruyn helped her high school biology students cultivate awareness about global water scarcity. Students also gained a sense of responsibility for their own water usage and developed empathy for people affected by water scarcity around the world.

Frieda de Bruyn is a high school biology teacher at Prestige College in Hammanskraal, South Africa. Photo by Harrison Montsho

How did you generate awareness of water scarcity and make the issue relevant to your students?

My students and I live in Gauteng, a northern province in South Africa. The Western Cape in South Africa has been facing a water scarcity crisis, which has led to intense water restrictions. However, our area is not directly affected by water scarcity.

The purpose of this activity was to increase learners’ awareness about water scarcity around the world. Students also developed a sense of responsibility for their personal water usage while better understanding the plight of people affected by water scarcity.

My students and I participated in a 50-liter (13-gallon) water challenge. We had to record our normal water usage for a period of 24 hours. Then, for the next 24 hours, we were only allowed to use a maximum of 50 liters of water. That is what the residents of South Africa’s Western Cape are expected to do during periods of water restriction.

Students took the project a step further by participating in an international pen pal exchange with students living in areas affected by drought in North America and Australia.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

Students research water scarcity around the world. Photo by Frieda de Bruyn

Why did you feel it was important that students learn about this crisis even though your region is not directly affected?

Water quality and availability are part of the biology curriculum. I thought a lesson that speaks to the heart, instead of only to the mind, would have a greater and longer-lasting impact on students, so I designed the project with this in mind. If you have not walked a day in someone else’s shoes, you do not truly understand what their situation is like. My class and I decided to walk a day in the shoes of a resident of the Western Cape during a time of water restriction.

One of my students wrote the following in her reflection: “My experience using only 50 liters of water was quite a challenge. It made me realize that there are people out there suffering, and we are not even aware. It also got me to realize that water is precious and important.”

What was your motivation for including a global email pen pal activity?

I want to enable my students to dream big and explore the world without necessarily having to travel abroad. Knowing the impact it had on my life to interact and collaborate with teachers from across the globe as part of my National Geographic Educator Certification, I wanted my students to get a taste of that experience as well.

They absolutely loved the global pen pal challenge and were excited to meet students from other parts of the world! The pen pal activity enabled my students to improve their communication skills while deepening their understanding that water scarcity impacts all of us on a global level.

Throughout her years teaching, Frieda has learned that failing is part of the learning process. Photo courtesy Frieda de Bruyn

What was the most surprising result of the project?

One of my colleagues told me that during playground duty, she heard a group of students talking about the 50-liter water challenge. Even better: only a few of the students speaking were even in my class. For teachers, I think it is one of the best feelings in the world when a lesson moves outside of the classroom and students are still engaged long afterward.

What did you as an educator learn from teaching this project?

I learned that I too struggled to stick to the 50-liter water restriction! I think it is important that we as educators push ourselves out of our comfort zones, as we expect our learners to do. Students have greater respect if educators are willing to also take risks and participate in challenges with them. As educators, we tend to think that we must always have the perfect answer and that we must always succeed, but I realized that learners are more willing to share their experiences when they know that it is perfectly okay to fail and learn from those failures.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Frieda as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at

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