‘Water issues tend to be, if you’ll excuse the pun, a little bit dry.’ But Fearghal O’Nuallain isn’t joking when it comes to highlighting the major problems facing an increasingly water stressed planet. ‘It’s an important resource for us that doesn’t really capture people,’ he continues. ‘So the whole intention of the expedition is to animate water issues and make learning about water interesting and hopefully exciting.’
The expedition in question involved – as he describes it – ‘putting a geography teacher [O’Nuallain], a scientist [Dr Shane McGuinness] and a film-maker [Temujin Doran] together into a specially-prepared Land Rover Discovery and driving across Jordan to learn about water.’
Jordan is one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, with only 135 cubic metres of water available per person per year – far below the 500 cubic metres a year level of ‘absolute scarcity’. Therefore, it struck O’Nuallain as the logical next place to take his project The Water Diaries, in which he undertakes journeys around the world – from the Bolivian Altiplano to the Indus valley – to learn and collect stories about water.
‘From my experience, people are acutely aware of water issues,’ explains O’Nuallain. ‘Everywhere that I’ve been, whether it’s Bolivia, southern Pakistan, India, or Jordan, it’s a common refrain. You talk to farmers, you talk to herdsman, anyone who’s outdoors a lot and engaging with their environment – basically anybody who doesn’t live in a city – and they’ll tell you about how precipitation patterns are changing, they’ll tell you about how the flow rate of a river is changing or how a glacier is receding. I suppose what I’m trying to do with this project is bring those stories into the classroom, and beyond that, to a wider audience. To package those stories in a way that isn’t just doom and gloom, isn’t just yet another environmental catastrophe.’
As an experienced geography teacher, O’Nuallain knows the difficulties of keeping students engaged in a topic as complex as water management, however vitally important the subject is. Finding ways to transport their experiences in the desert back into classrooms, and compiling a detailed set of resources for fellow teachers to utilise in order to cover the subject matter effectively was a leading inspiration for the Jordan expedition, and a strong driving force throughout.
‘The most interesting place from my own point of view was a couple of days ago when we went to Zaatari, a massive refugee camp about 10km south of the Syrian border,’ says O’Nuallain. ‘It’s coming up to its fifth year, and for all intents and purposes it has all the infrastructure of a medium-sized town. We met UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) specialists there and they talked us through the way they provide water overnight for so many people in informal settlements – we were really impressed by how they were dealing with such a challenge. We also visited a farm in the desert that was pulling water from aquifers to grow onions and tomatoes and alfalfa. That was very interesting, although there were questions about the sustainability of that particular farm, because the water they were pulling from the aquifer was very old, so there were questions of how long it was going to last.’
This ever-present scarcity of water, and the immense importance of finding ways to source it no matter how impossible it may seen, has been a constant observation for O’Nuallain all around the world. ‘It’s something we take for granted in the UK – and Ireland where I’m from – the management of water might not always be great, but it’s never seriously scarce. But in many countries as we go forward, it’s likely to become increasingly scarce, and that can lead to all kinds of political tensions.’
As well as a set of teaching resources for schools, covering primary schools right up to GCSE, the legacy of the expedition will live on as an upcoming film. The Water Diaries Roadshow will also see O’Nuallain hosting talks and workshops around the country through the first half of 2018, helping bring all the resources collected in the field to life. ‘I’ll be visiting schools and sharing the stories and resources that we’ve collected to try and bring some of the adventure back into the classroom,’ says O’Nuallain. ‘It’s all part of bringing water issues alive, and learning about water.’
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