accessibility & help

California drought

What happens when the well runs dry?

Explore the impact of a four year drought on Californian residents.


Learning objectives

By the end of this activity young people will be able to:

  • Identify how people affected by a drought might feel and what they might discuss.
  • Assess how much water they use for different activities and categorise them into essential and non-essential uses.
  • Explore what might make someone resilient, or more able to cope in times of adversity.

Water shortages

Last summer some communities in parts of southern California began to run out of water. Their wells ran dry.

Show the photograph and explain that it shows people delivering bottled water to neighbours. This is necessary in communities that have no water piped to their homes.

Bottled water is distributed to California residents experiencing fourth year of drought February 11 2015© Info

Ask young people to look at the photograph and imagine what it is like to have no water pumped to your home for many months. Invite comments and first responses.


Prompt questions

  1. If you didn’t have water pumped to your home how might you view water?
  2. What daily or weekly activities do you use water for that you might not be able to if it was in short supply? 
  3. How would this affect you and others around you?

Dealing with adversity

The photograph was taken in East Porterville, part of Tulare County where there are reported to be over 900 dry homes. For most, their water supply ran out in the summer of 2014, after three years of drought.

The photographer wrote a caption saying that the three people were talking about "water issues".

Ask the group to think about what they might be discussing, for example:

  • When the situation might start getting better.
  • Tips for conserving water or finding new supplies.
  • Which local people are in need and who might require help.

Ask young people to think about the word adversity. What does it mean to them?

As a group, come up with a definition for the word, e.g. difficulty, hardship etc.

Discuss ways of staying positive in times of adversity. Ask young people to write down, for their own use only, two things that they personally find helpful when times are bad.

If young people are happy to share some of their ideas you could ask them what techniques they use. Do they use distractions, talk to friends, search for help online, listen to music, do something practical, or try to help others?

How might these activities help them, and others, deal with difficult situations?


Water sources and uses

Residents of East Porterville now have two sources of water:

  1. They take water carriers, buckets, bottles and whatever other containers they have available and fill up from 5,000-gallon water tanks parked locally. In this way they fill their own water tanks with free non-drinkable water.
  2. They also receive deliveries of bottled water funded from state emergency funds.

Ask young people to list all the different ways they use water in their daily lives.

A few suggested prompts:

  • cooking
  • washing clothes
  • bathing and showering
  • flushing toilets
  • washing dishes
  • watering plants
  • drinking

Once young people have identified their daily water uses start a discussion using the questions below.


Discussion questions

  1. For which activities would they use tank water (non-drinkable), and for which bottled?
  2. Which water uses do they see as essential and which as non-essential?
  3. Which activities would they do without, or do less of, in a drought?
  4. Should we think about conserving water anyway, even in times when there isn’t a drought? 
  5. How might a drought affect their family or community?

Water calculations

Ask young people to write down how much water (in litres) they think their household uses per day.

Sharing the information below from an Anglian Water fact sheet, ask young people to do some rough calculations to estimate the total daily water usage of their household in litres.

Running the tap 8 – 12 litres per minute
Washing up in the sink 6 – 8 litres
Washing hands and face 3 – 9 litres
Taking a normal shower 6 – 12 litres per minute
Taking a power shower 13 – 22 litres per minute
Flushing the toilet 6 – 12 litres
Running a modern dishwasher 15 litres
Running a modern washing machine 60 – 80 litres
Having a bath 75 – 90 litres
Using a hosepipe 550 – 1,000 litres per hour
Making food and drink 6 – 10 litres



  1. Is the estimated total more or less than they thought it would be?
  2. What would it be like to have to collect that amount of water from local tanks rather than simply turning on the tap?
  3. If they had to collect water every day, what would they have to give up doing to make time for it?  How would this impact their life?  How might it impact the lives of others around them?

Resilient and vulnerable

If you are able to cope well during a crisis, have strengths and resources to draw on, you could be said to be resilient. If you struggle to cope, you might be said to be vulnerable.

Some people in society are hit harder by water shortages than others. Invite the group to say whether they think the following are likely to be resilient or vulnerable in a drought, and why.

  • an able-bodied teenager
  • a mother with a baby and a toddler
  • a police officer
  • an 87 year old 
  • a rough sleeper
  • someone recovering at home from a major operation
  • a farmer
  • a wealthy company executive

In reality, few people are clearly either resilient or vulnerable. We are mostly a mix.

Demonstrate this by asking the group to go back through the list, and for each person they had marked as vulnerable, identify some way in which they might also be resilient.

Likewise, for those initially thought of as resilient, think of some way they might also be vulnerable.

How could you safely support different members of your community if there was a drought?

Share thoughts and ideas.



This resource was written by PJ White of Alt62 and published in April 2015.


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