11.S196 | Spring 2011 | Undergraduate

Global Freshwater Crisis


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


For the first time in history, the global demand for freshwater is overtaking its supply in many parts of the world. The U.N. predicts that by 2025, more than half of the countries in the world will be experiencing water stress or outright shortages and by 2050, 75% of the global population could face water scarcity. The global freshwater crisis is caused by multiple factors; not least among them are rising population (> 9 billion by 2050) and richer populations demanding more. Climate change is producing weather extremes, exacerbating cycles of droughts and floods. Water sources are under threat of human and animal waste, industrial toxins, agricultural runoff, deforestation, desertification, nutrient overloading, salt water intrusion, military operations, and unsustainable surface and groundwater extractions leading to scarcity and depletion.

In previous eras, and in certain geographic areas, water scarcity has caused mass migrations and collapse of cultures. Lack of water can cause disease, food shortages, starvation, migrations, political conflict, and even lead to war. Failure to address this crisis has profound consequences. Models of cooperation, both historic and contemporary, show the way forward.

This classroom and field-based investigation course begins with the tension: Water as a human right, water as an economic good. It provides an overview of the status of freshwater resources, population/consumption, urbanization, aquatic ecosystem services, water consumption, and virtual water (the volume of water to produce a product or food). It considers selected cultures that have flourished or failed due to water/ecosystem mismanagement, and then focuses attention in our own backyard. How well are we managing our water-ecosystem in Massachusetts? Where does our water come from and go to? What is our water footprint? What have we done successfully and what do other cultures have to teach us?

The first half of the course details the multiple facets of the water crisis. Topics include water systems, water transfers, dams, pollution, climate change, scarcity, water conflict/water cooperation, food security, and agriculture. The second half of the course describes innovative solutions: Adaptive technologies and adaptation through policy, planning, management, economic tools and finally, human behaviors required to preserve this precious and imperiled resource. Several field trips to water/wastewater/biosolids reuse and energy sites will help us to better comprehend both local and international challenges and solutions.

Course Objectives

  • To explore the global water crisis through reading, discussion, lecture and reflection.
  • To visit several major water infrastructure sites of interest and relevance in Massachusetts and to relate these experiences to the wider world.
  • To deepen in our understanding of the challenges and essential adaptations to a changed water world in the 21st century.

Field Trips

  • Week #4: Water power and the beginning of the industrial revolution: Lowell National Historical Park
  • Week #7: Cambridge Water Treatment Plant
  • Week #13: New Charles River Dam: Flood Control Project

Grading and Requirements

Participation 30%
Quizzes (5% each) 20%
Term project 40%
Optional extra credit 10%


Active class participation is highly valued and graded. Participation includes regular attendance in class and in field trips outside of class, involvement in class discussions and engaging in group exercises. Class participation also includes completing assigned readings on time and being on-time to class. Students missing a class should inform the instructor or TA.


Quizzes that directly address the readings of any given class session will be given regularly during the term. Each of 4 quizzes will take 15–20 minutes and will be on the materials covered in readings. This material is not available on OCW.

Term project

Information on the term project and related extra credit assignments can be found in the Projects section of the course.