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What will we do when the water runs dry?

July 26, 2019

Global water shortage crises prompt questions about what communities will need to do to conserve the precious resource

Earlier this summer, the sixth-largest city in India, Chennai, ran out of water. The cause wasn’t just a weak monsoon. Overextraction of groundwater, unmaintained reservoirs, runaway urban growth and leaking pipelines all played a role.

Chennai’s four reservoirs are puddles of cracked mud. Some parts of the city have not had piped water for five months. An Indian government think tank predicts Day Zero for 21 Indian cities next year.

Water crises are now global. Cape Town, South Africa, narrowly escaped Day Zero last year, but it’s still at risk, as are Sao Paulo and Mexico City. Iraq, Morocco and Spain also face water shortages.

Two years ago, eight Arizona State University students spent a month living in a Mojave Desert ghost town in the dead of summer, living on 4 gallons of water per person per day and no air conditioning. A hybrid art-science experiment, it started off as a water exercise and turned into a lesson on collaboration no one expected.

The idea was co-directed by two ASU faculty members: Marco Janssen, director of the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment and a professor in the School of Sustainability, and Adriene Jenik, a professor of intermedia in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. They created a near-future fictional scenario and dubbed the experiment Drylab2023.

Recent news has transformed Drylab2023 into more of a training scenario than an experiment. ASU Now talked to Jenik about the crises, the eerily prescient experiment and the nexus between the two.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: The sixth-largest city in India is out of water, and 21 other Indian cities are facing Day Zeros next year. What are your predictions on the outcomes: mass migration on a scale that makes the Syrian diaspora look like a casual commute? Life with a daily water supply similar to Drylab2023? Any predictions about impacts to industry and urban life?

Answer: What we are seeing in Chennai right now is a devastating illustration of human-driven climate disruption. A short and sparse monsoon season has not replenished water storage, reservoirs and aquifers that people depend on for water consumption and agriculture; the large and developing population has been drilling wells deeper and deeper, rapidly draining groundwater reserves. Their freshwater ecosystem of marshes, streams and estuaries has been covered with landfill and built upon, further impacting weather systems and the resilience of the natural systems. The more well-to-do (and their neighbors and friends) are able to continue on, for the moment, without many disruptions due to private wells, but the poor and aspirational find their lives organized around the sound of the water truck and reconfigured economically, socially and aesthetically in relation to the scarcity of this precious resource.

Sadly, these disruptions are not hard to predict. They are a regular part of the forecasting and planning of large businesses and national, regional and local governments, including our own country’s military forecasting. But the effects are not in a distant imagined future. Many don’t realize that the current humanitarian crisis on our southern national border is caused in part by climate migration, revealing the complex impacts of our historic overconsumption of natural resources.

It is hard for me to picture a near future where access to clean, fresh water continues in as plentiful a way as it is in most of our country at this moment. Between aging city water infrastructure threatening water quality, increased privatization of water sources, groundwater contamination as a result of fracking and other extractive technologies and the increase in climate extremes including drought and desertification of land that affects agriculture, the current thoughtless use of water in our culture will not be sustained for long.

One vision does turn in the direction of an apocalyptic scenario where water scarcity produces increased conflict and increases the desperation caused by the gap between the rich and poor — with the rich retaining access to this precious resource and the poor dying of thirst and disease. Pretty grim.

Another vision, which Drylab2023 shows is just as plausible, is that people will join together as a community to honor and steward this precious resource. Dr. Elinor Ostrom, ASU faculty and Nobel Prize winner, through her observations of cultures around the world, showed that the management of a commons is doable and not at all unusual. She and her research partners even outlined some design principles that made it more likely to occur and be sustained successfully over time. We can learn from our indigenous colleagues and their communities, who treat water as medicine and understand it as the sacred life force that it is, that there are other ways to live in relation to our water. We can be proactive in overhauling our building and industrial codes so that they incorporate greywater and composting systems, and we can rethink our diets by moving away from animal protein.

As you can see, the rethinking of water necessitates a rethinking of all of our living systems, so this will take immense political and social will. I am hopeful that these initial Day Zero events — like the one last year that forged significant changes in water use and management in Cape Town, South Africa — are not just seen as far-off problems befalling impoverished nations, but are understood as warning signs for us to not continue in a “business as usual” fashion.

Q: At the end of Drylab2023, participants hoarded sizeable amounts of “personal” water they’d saved up. No one squandered it on things like showers, but there wasn’t a lot of sharing either. Do you think this is predictive of how a similar situation will shake out socially in reality?

A: I was personally shocked and surprised at what ended up happening in Drylab in relation to this “hoarding” issue. When we first designed the project, each person was to be granted 2 gallons of water for personal use (so as to not dehydrate) and 2 gallons for the common pool to be negotiated with others. Upon arriving on site, with the co-directors no longer involved in decision-making but solely serving as chaperones and observers of the process, a subset of the group started to lobby for a 3:1 distribution — 3 gallons personal, 1 gallon common pool. The rest of the group went along, even as they recognized and commented upon the degree of distrust they had taken on from growing up in such an individualistic culture. This decision was especially poignant, as several of the students from nonwhite backgrounds understood that they had a different experience of community — that their needs had been met within community settings and as a result, they had a greater sense of trust.

Most disappointing was that even though the data showed that they had plenty of water to share after week three and they could easily change to a 2:2 distribution, many participants still argued against changing. I believe that if the experiment had gone on longer than 30 days that the data would have won the day, but what happened certainly underlined the critical importance of trust and community-building for the success of these changes long term. Trust takes time and is more difficult as we scale to a larger population, and so we can see that if we are in a crisis and rushing changes through, and if they are enacted across a large scale of population, they are less likely to be embraced.

Q: According to research, nearly half of the human population is living with water scarcity, inhabiting places unable to fully meet their drinking, cooking and sanitation needs. What are your thoughts on that?

A: As informed as we believe we are, many of us live in an illusory bubble of constant access — and growing in amount and speed — to natural resources and consumer goods. Even if we are aware of the impacts of water scarcity throughout the world, we don’t understand ourselves and our overconsumption as the cause or connected. One of the more profound lessons of Drylab2023 was a deeper understanding for each participant and the directors of the ways in which we are implicated personally and culturally in what is happening. Few cultures waste as much water as we doThe average daily water usage in Tempe is 80-100 gallons per day.. It is this waste and overconsumptive lifestyle that is now glorified and “the dream” of many other peoples and cultures — no wonder people continue to put themselves in danger to migrate! It is our responsibility to join with other privileged cultures around the world to address the possibility of another way of living — to honor and value and support, rather than degrade and deign to “improve," the water conservation and land stewardship that indigenous and poor cultures have developed over millennia. Can we be humble and learn these lessons even as we develop technological innovations?

Another lesson learned was that fostering community while bringing beauty and mindfulness to the process of daily living can actually elevate what at first seems like a life of hardship and depravation. Again, ancient cultures already know this!

Q: Do you plan to resurrect Drylab2023?

A: I would very much like to continue offering this as an immersive/experiential learning module and am putting effort in the next few years into developing an ongoing offering, either within ASU or with another external partner. On-campus ASU presentations have shown a significant interest among students for participating in future offerings. Ideally, our ASU community could face the existential challenge presented us, and take on further responsibility as a “sustainable campus” to encourage the radical rethinking of our use patterns. In some cases, as with Drylab2023, it could forge a new lifelong relationship to water; for all it would increase empathy and understanding of the real hardships and obstacles of people living without clean fresh water.

Top photo: A woman in Pushkar, India, draws water from the well to take to her tent in the desert. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStock Editorial

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502

 
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8 people, 30 days and 100 degrees in the Mojave desert: An ASU water experiment to remember

ASU project teaches deep understanding of challenges behind water scarcity.
Water-rationing experiment surprises participants with the result.
July 21, 2017

Artists, scientists restricted to 4 gallons a day — for everything, including hygiene — each in a 'near-future' scenario (oh, and no AC)

 Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?”

“It’s clean.”

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Bring eight people together for a month in an almost-abandoned hamlet in the middle of the Mojave desert, restrict them to four gallons of water per day each, and see what happens.

That was the project, a hybrid science-art experiment. It started off as a water exercise and became a study in cooperation that none of them expected. None of them will ever forget it, either.

“I don’t think everyone knew what they were in for,” said a student.

“It was a really profound experience for all of us,” said one of the faculty. “It exceeded all our expectations of what was going to happen to us.”

The genesis

Drylab drone

The group of eight Drylab2023 participants assembled the words of the project from refuse gathered near the site. This image was shot with a drone. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

Drylab 2023 was co-directed by two Arizona State University faculty members, Marco Janssen and Adriene Jenik.

Janssen, director of the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment and a professor in the School of Sustainability, met a Swiss artist who ran a project bringing artists and scientists together in extreme environments. Think Tunisia, Swiss alpine glaciers and the Mojave desert. The Swiss artist offered the Mojave space to Janssen.

Janssen contacted co-director Adriene Jenik, a professor of intermedia in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“We began to hatch the idea,” Jenik said. “We were interested in working together to see how art and science could complement each other, but a bit more open-ended than a typical scientific experiment. ... We decided to create a near-future fictional scenario where we could monitor the amount of resources.”

The scenario

Spare bike

Sunrise, viewed from the front of the dilapidated motel where the project was sited. Each participant had her own room, which had electricity but no air-conditioning. Participants got around the area via bicycle, reserving the shared car for shopping excursions and an occasional day trip. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

It’s 2023. Military enlistment is mandatory, and mandated by water scarcity. No enlistment, no water. Eight people are hiding in an almost-dead town, far from any city. They have to live on four gallons of water per person per day and locally grown food.

Water, Part 1

Wild melons

From the blog: "Melons! unexpected find amongst the creosote." Coyote melon is a local wild plant that survives entirely on its own in this arid land. The participants were amazed at, and took pains to document, the abundant animal and plant life that survived in such a harsh environment. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

The human body is more than 60 percent water. Blood is 92 percent water, the brain and muscles are 75 percent water, and bones are about 22 percent water.

Water-resources experts at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, have estimated that humans require 13.2 gallons of clean water each day to meet basic needs.

Estimates vary, but each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

According to the American Water Works Association, 28 percent of water used in the average household is the result of toilet flushing.

Without water in the desert in summer, most people will die within three to five hours.

The place

Drylab through the window

More out buildings in Amboy. In its heyday, there were more than 700 residents of this privately-owned, unincorporated community. Many vacant outbuildings (including a church and school) surround the site. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

Amboy sits on old Route 66 in the middle of the Mojave desert. It’s nicknamed “The Ghost Town That Ain’t Dead Yet.” It’s two hours from a hospital and an hour from groceries.

There’s one full-time resident. His name is Vern. He manages Roy’s Motel and Cafe, which is neither a motel nor a cafe because there’s no running water in Amboy. It’s a gas station that sells sodas, snacks, and $4 per gallon gasoline. Debbie comes up from Twentynine Palms three or four days a week to open the post office.

Visitors tend to be European Route 66 chasers who stop for a photo op and quickly leave. Recent comments on TripAdvisor included:

  • “Nothing to see, restrooms are horrible, coffee about the same and not very hospitable.”
  • “We thought this might be a boring pointless stop but we actually found it very interesting, a little eerie, but definitely worth seeing!”
  • “The bathrooms are dingy. The diner isn't serving food. The motel rooms are gutted. But if you look past all that, you'll get a glimpse into the past.”
  • “For myself, Roy's is a landmark that makes me proud to be a (sic) American.”

Willa Gibbs, an ASU non-degree grad student, found Amboy more developed than she imagined.

“What was there was more than I expected,” Gibbs said. The students stayed in an abandoned motel. The bedrooms were especially creepy. “It looked like it was a set for a serial-killer movie.”

Actually, it was. “The Hitcher” — Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh, 1986, “The terror starts when he stops!” — was partly filmed in Amboy.

The interest

Dividing the day's water

Day 1: An iconic image of the process of water allocation/dispersal. The process of getting the water from the tank involved two water stewards who dispensed water each day and noted it in a log that the receiver signed off on. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

A flier went around the School of Sustainability at ASU and the arts programs.

“The information was very, very vague,” Gibbs said. The flier said something about limited water and a month in the Mojave, and not much else.

“I was interested in what kind of people would want to do that,” she said.

Jenik was looking for a balance between artists and sustainability scientists. She wanted mature students; that trait would be crucial in a harsh environment. She also looked for a broad variety of skills. Sarra Tekola, earning a doctorate in sustainability, had conflict-resolution skills. Another student had strong documentary skills.

Molly Koehn just graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiber art. Her work is centered around sustainability.

“I try to live as sustainably as possible,” Koehn said. “It was an interesting project for me. ... I love the desert and hate the city, so that was a plus. It’s surprising how giving and taking the desert is.”

All eight participants were women.

The first three days were pretty mellow, Gibbs said. The first week the temperatures were in the 90s. They set up the toilet, a gray-water system and the kitchen.

Koehn is a self-starting, can-do type. The first weeks she stepped up a lot and took charge. She realized she was being bossy (she used another word) and stepped back.

The blur of campus life with theses, classes and exams evaporated in the desert. It took Koehn a week to get sorted out.

“It was abnormal for me to slow down so much,” she said.

The group had a tank of water that contained the group’s entire allotment for the month. There was a system where their containers were filled daily and logged.

“We really let them go once we set up the initial rules and they got on-site,” Jenik said.

The food

Breakfast

The participants experimented with new recipes in their water-wise diet (no meat, no dairy; only fruits, grains and vegetables that could be grown in the desert with little water). These are vegan buckwheat pancakes with what appears to be a strawberry syrup. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

Because of the water limit, the group endured a vegan diet. No wheat, cereals, sugar, coffee, rice, chocolate. And everything they ate had to be local. (From the Mojave. Where nothing grows.)

“What was more difficult than the four gallons was the food restrictions,” Tekola said.

Meals had to be planned in advance because the group went shopping only once a week. It took them about a week to figure out how to put together a decent meal.

“We didn’t have the right food to deal with the heat,” Gibbs said.

Fortunately, the town of Joshua Tree has a farmer’s market. They bought grapes, melons, squash, honey.

“I was hungry all the time,” Tekola said. “Our energy levels were really low.”

Peanuts and dates became the go-to snack. They made soy milk from soy beans. “It takes like two days,” Tevola said. “I don’t think I’ll do that again.” (Without additives, “it tastes like beans.”)

Tekola did a health survey, which involved weighing everyone. Most people lost six or seven pounds. One lost 12 pounds. One person contracted irritable bowel syndrome from the diet.

They made art and bartered with it. It was the only way to get food off the list. Tekola went to work in the gas station. Four of them did a chore for Vern, who gave them a gallon of ice cream. After three weeks of living on squash, beets and quinoa, they all got as sick as a dog.

Cooking was a pain. No one was familiar with preparing the food they had, or with cooking for a large group. (Compounding the hassle was the fact that the breaker box would blow if more than one electric stove was plugged in. They had to cook large amounts of food in batches.) No one was particularly crazy about the food, but it was a POW menu; eat it, because you’re not getting anything else.

The faculty members ate the same food. “We submitted ourselves to the same diet, the same restrictions,” Jenik said. “It didn’t feel right for us to be there eating salmon and having champagne.”

The professors did not spend the entire month in Amboy, although they visited frequently.

Water, Part 2

Water Bottles

Krista Davis (aka Jack in the Desert; top center) and others collected discarded water bottles (discarded by others, not the Drylab participants) from the desert and filled them with gravel. They were in process of becoming construction “bricks” in a partial wall erected as part of the outhouse. The mortar for the bricks was a mixture of sand from the site and clay deposits gathered on walks in the surrounding desert. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

Most water use went to drinking. “It had to be,” Gibbs said.

Initially the plan was two gallons for personal use, two for the commons. A group vote changed that to three and one.

The communal water was used for cooking, laundry and bathing.

“We were running out of communal water, but people had stacks of private water,” Tekola said.

She ended up with 60 gallons of private water at the end. Most had more than 30 gallons each. One person had 58 gallons.

“It was funny, but people were adamant about not returning to the two and two,” Tekola said. “People started getting scared. ‘I don’t want to give up control of my water.’ ... It was more a mental thing that made people anxious. That was interesting to me: the psycho-social implications of that. ... People’s inclination was to hoard. We saw that during Katrina.”

By the end of the exercise, Tekola was down to using a gallon of water a day, drinking two liters.

She took two and a half showers during the month. She scrubbed down with baby wipes and washed clothes in a bucket. Some people showered and washed their clothes in the gray water. Some washed their hair. Some didn’t. On average they showered once every five days.

Because of the diet, there was very little body odor. Everyone was coated in a layer of dirt and dead skin. What looked like a tan tended to scrub off.

'Desert Time'

Haircut

Molly Koehn (aka Moso) gives a trim to Cydnei Mallory (aka Skip) during a grooming session. Many participants changed their hairstyles in response to the high heat and lack of daily shampooing. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

“Time was very different out there,” Koehn said. “Time was a big thing for everyone.”

“We started calling it Desert Time,” Gibbs said. “There was nothing there but us, the buildings, the desert and the wind.”

With no Internet, there was no need to carry around a phone all the time. Time didn’t matter after a while. They did what the sun dictated.

No cell service was a source of anxiety at first, but eventually it felt therapeutic, Tekola said.

“You just have to focus on yourself and each other,” she said.

“The time became wonderful,” Koehn said. She woke up at 5:30 a.m. with the sun.  By the end of the last week, they all slept outside.

There was very little shade. When the sun was at its zenith, there wasn’t much shade beside the buildings.

The air-conditioning was in a trailer that also contained their kitchen. It didn’t really work. “It did absolutely nothing,” Gibbs said. It basically pumped in hot air from outside. They learned to run it in the morning to bring cool air inside.

“You were pretty much hot all the time,” she said. “You couldn’t sleep at night because it was so hot.”

Napping and sleeping were popular. Dinner didn’t get started until around 10 p.m. because of the heat. People took bike rides early in the day.

People would put an inch of water in a kiddie pool they had and sit in it. “There was a lot of sitting.” Gibbs liked to go up and sit on a roof. “The wind cools you down even when it’s 108.”

Some brought books. Gibbs brought a lot of books but ended up not reading them. “I kind of sat and talked,” she said. “That’s what a lot of people did.”

Some trekked in the desert. The second week they peeled off and worked on their own: art projects, exploring, writing and making crafts to barter.

“I was expecting it to be like this strange hippie commune where we all hung out together,” Koehn said. “It wasn’t like that.”

Divides

Opening Cans

Cydnei Mallory was shop manager during the project. Lacking a can opener (and 60 miles from the nearest store), she instead used a drill. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

Water and food issues were quickly overshadowed by negotiating relationships. There were divides: people who had lived on their own and people who hadn’t. Older people and younger people. The major cultural schism arose from the group makeup: four artists and four scientists. 

“That created some contention,” Tekola said. “Our disciplines schooled us differently.”

Artists have studios and jobs. They’re self-motivated, and they make their own paths. Science follows extremely strict protocols established over hundreds of years.

The artists wanted a clean common area. The scientists didn’t really care. The artists didn’t want a schedule. “That’s all the scientists knew were schedules,” Tekola said.

The compromise was people who wanted a schedule got one. People who didn’t want schedules filled in when they wanted to. (No one slacked, Tekola said.)

Inevitably tensions rose because of the heat.

“I think all of us learned how to deal with people who are very different from you in close quarters,” Gibbs said. She put it another way: “learning to deal with other people when you can’t get away from them.”

They restrained behavior, watched their own body language and limits with heat, with food, with others. Some introverts were stressed about being around other people all the time. “No one wanted anyone to feel bad,” Gibbs said.

There was a housekeeping check-in and an emotional well-being check-in.

“You could really tell during the meeting if someone was having a problem,” Gibbs said.

Koehn said if she ever does it again, there won’t be meetings over dinner.  They made dinner miserable.

“We never did any name-calling,” she said. Criticism was delivered along the lines of “I found five cups and washed them.”

“That was a recurring thing,” Koehn said.

World War III can break out over dirty dishes.

“And it did,” she said. “I had to think, ‘How much do I teach this person about living with other people?’”

No one really lost it. “Everyone was on their best behavior,” Gibbs said. “No one went completely nuts.”

They voted on group decisions. A hierarchy emerged, even though no one wanted one.

“It was interesting because that was essentially anarchy,” Tekola said.

No one led. How to divide the ice became an issue.

“When you don’t have leaders and you don’t have roles, it requires more accountability,” Tekola said. “People have to stand up.”

“Some people just do more than others,” she said. “There’s a difference between equality and equity.”

Everyone moved at a different pace. “That was something we had to take into account,” Tekola said. “Individualistic society makes cooperation difficult.”

Highs and lows

Making Plastic Yarn

Cydnei Mallory and Sarra Tekola (aka Nayara) cutting up plastic bags in preparation for a weaving project. The participants made inventive use of cast-off materials that were in abundance throughout the site due to the high winds and mindless waste. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

“There’s a whole history in art of people doing endurance performances, where they put their body on the line,” Jenik said.

A British artist and architect lives on a floating island he made out of 100,000-plus plastic bottles. Jenik calls Drylab “extreme experiential learning.” It’s the first time it has been done at ASU.

Obviously it was extreme. The motel rooms where the students lived had no air-conditioning. Jenik got heat exhaustion.

“That was a surprise because I’m a desert rat,” she said. “I was running around telling everyone how dangerous the heat is.”

Her temperature spiked at 101.5 and wasn’t regulating. They cooled her down with ice, and she spent the night at her studio in Twentynine Palms.

The lone air-conditioner in the cook trailer broke at one point. (Vern lives without air-conditioning at all, according to Koehn.)

“When things got very, very hot and extreme and the AC was broken at one point, Marco and I thought we needed to pull the plug,” Jenik said.

The students refused.

Sometimes morale went sky-high. The water tower started leaking one day. “We all started dancing under it,” Gibbs said.

One day when it was 111 they all drove to the Colorado River in Needles.

“Frankly we were hot and dirty and tired and done with it,” Gibbs said. “Being in the river was really nice.”

“That little bit of coolness made us like, ‘We can do this!’” Koehn said.

After a long and satisfying cool swim, they went to a diner. The only thing they were allowed to eat were fries and iced tea, so they ordered fries and iced tea.

Culture shock

Outhouse

All of the participants contributed to the digging, building and upkeep of this important facility — the outhouse — that saved hundreds of gallons of water over the course of the project. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

Coming home, Koehn went into culture shock.

“Just being surrounded by people and buildings and the traffic — it was a lot,” she said.

She didn’t watch TV for a week. There were other changes. “I was a lot more intentional.” If she spent time with her husband, they didn’t watch TV; they spent the time together.

Koehn lost 12 pounds, mostly due to being much more active in Amboy. She eats meat again, but no processed foods, dairy, gluten, rice or sugar. She won’t touch quinoa.

Tekola has gone vegan: “A lot of us are more cognizant of our reactions to food,” she said.

Gibbs’ house felt smaller when she got home.

“I don’t know whether it was the desert or the people, but it was surprising how much smaller it was,” she said.

Water consciousness became so engrained in them their habits carried on after leaving the Mojave. Tekola carries water bottles everywhere. Gibbs’ brother yelled at her for not flushing the toilet every time. Tekola’s roommates weren’t too happy about it either.

“I still feel guilty when I run the washing machine,” Gibbs said. “You look in there and see all the water pouring in, and it’s so much water! It felt wrong to use more than you needed. Using more was like, ‘Why? It isn’t necessary.’”

Jenik felt some ripple effects. She is now eating vegan. She came back feeling really good physically. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want to continue this.’ I feel really good about it.”

Lessons

Info booth signs

Adjacent to the site, participants had access to some outbuildings and used one to present the project through a series of placards to the many visitors to this crossroads at historic Route 66. Shalae Flores (aka Nadira Sheru; left) and Sydney Rood (aka Kirsten) work on the signs. Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net

“I would definitely do it again, but not with the same people,” Koehn said. “It was a really great experience.”

Tekola compared it to a study abroad trip, but with many more challenges than a foreign language.

“Something like this is even more important,” she said. Trying to figure out how to live together in the middle of nowhere — “It’s out of the box.”

“I hope our society can change before we have to,” Tekola said. “Trying to change behavior during scarcity can be difficult. ... We don’t have to work together, except in times of crisis. ... I think our society needs to practice cooperation.”

The students asked Jenik why she chose a length of 30 days.

“I didn’t think anything less than 30 days you’d sink into it and really get it,” she said. “For me I came out feeling incredibly hopeful because of the commitment the students had to the project. ... It does take a serious commitment.”

The project produced a shift in consciousness in the participants. Jenik wants to do it again. All the participants interviewed for this story said they’d do it again.

“The learning was so strong and really different from the classroom and had ripples out in ways we couldn’t have predicted,” Jenik said.

She said the project taught a deep understanding of the challenges behind a change like water scarcity. If that comes to pass, it’s going to be a more Hobbesian existence.

“We saw them coming to understand that sense of individualism and not trusting, if something is scarce, to negotiate with strangers,” Jenik said.

“I can’t recall another creative and educational experiment that has touched me as deeply or effected such potential for real, ongoing transformation of those involved,” she said. “I am not sure this could have taken place anywhere else but ASU.”

None of them will ever forget it.

“Even though it was stressful and crazy and weird, everyone learned so much from it, it was worth whatever issues you had,” Gibbs said. “It was such a good experience to have, even if it was problematic.”

Top photo: From the blog: "New home: Drylab. It's got a tank with enough water for the six of us to have 4 gallons each per day, for well over a month. Our project site as viewed from the north (when you walked north of the property, it is all sparsely vegetated BLM land, pocked with illegal dump sites)." Photo courtesy of Drylab2023.net 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502