riverUPSTREAM-DOWNSTREAM: Sharing Water Simulation
Barbara and Robert Tinker For Global Lab

Teacher guide

Ideas for improvement are welcome! (barbara@concord.org)


Students play out simplified versions of a real-world problem of water allocation. By assuming the identity of nations in collision over water, they explore the interplay of scientific and social issues. In the process, they learn about the social context of water issues, the disputes that arise, and ways in which they may be resolved.

Materials (for a class of 24-32 students)

Classroom Management and Preparation

Break the class into groups of six students. Distribute ‘extra’ students to make groups of eight. Divide each group into an upstream (Upland) team and a downstream (Deltaland) team. Each team should appoint a Mathematician who figures out how many chips to move, an Historian, who records the history of the country that the game is simulating, and a Facilitator who watches the rules and helps the team decide what to do. The fourth player, if present, is the Negotiator who meets with the other country, particularly in simulation #2.

Recommended Procedures

1. Set the stage. The Quint river flows down a virtual continent. There are two countries, Upland and Deltaland. Upland is sparsely populated and poor. It has beautiful mountains that trap the rain and snow, producing lots of water. Deltaland is richer because it has always been a trading country. It doesn’t rain much there, but it has always relied on the Quint river for water, and images of it are deep in its mythology.

2. Distribute simulation equipment. For Simulation #1, each team needs the following:

  • A pair of dice.
  • One Simulation Map. You may either have students make their maps or save time by distributing a copy of the Simulation Map to each team.
  • One Upland Rule Sheet and one Delta Rule Sheet.
  • 40 blue and 20 white poker chips or counters. Poker chips are easy to use and speed the play. Alternatively, have students cut counters from paper, in which case each team needs paper and two scissors. To simplify making paper counters, copy the Counter Template onto white or colored paper in advance.

3. Explain the rules for Simulation #1: The counters. The counters stand for different variables: Each water counter stands for a fixed amount of drinkable rain and river water. Each population counter stands for one million people. Obviously, the people (population counters) need good water (water counters). Each population chip in richer countries uses more water chips than poorer countries.

4. Play Simulation #1. Start the simulation in 1900 with two population counters in Upland and four in Deltaland. Have each team make ten moves, representing the ten decades in the twentieth century. Each Move represents a decade and starts with a rain, which adds water counters to both countries. Upland plays first, using some water and sending the balance to Deltaland. Its population then grows depending on how well-off the population is. Deltaland plays next, using some water and then growing.

The Rule Cards determine how much water the populations consume and how they grow.

The Rain Cycles. The amount of rain each decade is determined by the roll of two dice. The number of water counters Deltaland gets is the sum of the dice thrown, but never more than eight. This means that a roll of: –two to eight results in that number of rain counters for Deltaland.

Nine, ten, eleven, or twelve all result in eight rain counters Deltaland. This results in droughts happening at random. Half the years having good rain (7 or 8 counters), but occasionally there is moderate drought (4 to 6 counters) or severe drought (2 or 3 counters). Upland always gets three times the rain Deltaland gets. This is because both countries have the same general weather patterns, but Upland mountains capture more of the rain. Thus, Upland gets between 6 and 24 counters in a decade.

To summarize, each decade consists of the following five steps:

1. Both countries receive rain. Roll the dice and determine the number of new white (rain) counters for each country. Place the counters on the countries on the map. (See Rain Cycles above)
2. Upland moves. Withdraw the number of water counters representing water needed during the decade. The Upland Rule Sheet provides the details of how to figure the number needed. Increase the Upland population. The Simulation Map has a table that relates water consumption to population growth. By consulting that table, students can figure how many population counters to add for that decade.
3. Water is sent downstream. All the unused water counters are sent downstream to Deltaland.
4. Deltaland moves. Withdraw the number of water counters representing water needed during the decade. Consult the Deltaland Rule Sheet to figure the number needed. Increase the population. Consult the table to figure how many population counters to add for that decade.

5. Water is passed along. All the remaining water counters are sent on to the ocean.

Encourage students to discuss the simulation critically as they play. What is the reasoning behind the rules? How do the simulation rules relate to real situations? Where does that “used” water go? What would life be like in the two countries during each decade? Review the notes the historian made and have the team agree on their country’s history of the decade.


or Return to Upstream Downstream Index



It is the year 1900, and there is low population, low consumption, little development, and lots of water. People are careless about water, so both countries use lots of water. Upland is very poor, so its population grows 50% each decade. Deltaland has an average income, so its population grows 25% each decade.

By the 1930’s the population in both countries had increased. Now the Uplanders are richer so they use two water counters for every population counter. Their population growth slows to 25% per decade. The Deltaland people, have continued to develop, too, so they use three water counters for every population counter and their population growth drops to 10% per decade.

Starting in the 1960’s, both countries are richer. The bad news is that consumption is up to 3 to 1 in Upland and 4 to 1 in Deltaland. The good news is that Deltaland has succeeded in zero population growth and Upland has dropped to 20%. A low rainfall year, however, was insufficient for Upland’s needs so they gave no water to Deltaland. A shouting match ensued that simulated a battle between the countries.