Jerome Poulalier

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During a three-week archeological mission in July 2018, 18 people were forced to survive on highly restrictive water system in the middle of the Jordanian desert. It is in this context that Subsistence was born to raise awareness about preserving one of the world’s most important resources.

Jordan is the 3rd poorest country in terms of water resources. Saving water is not an option, it’s a way of life. The size of the water tanks on top of a building define the level of richness and are filled only once a week to provide for hygiene and cleaning. Water bottles are expensive and filtering centers are the most common places to get drinking water.

In order for the mission to function, conserving water was a crucial key to success. The water was transported to the excavation camp using two custom 1,000-liter water tanks provided by the University Al-Hussein Bin Talal, a partner of the mission. This water was used for everything but drinking including bathing, washing dishes, cleaning clothes or equipment, and even to facilitate excavation techniques. Because of the national restriction, purchasing enough water to fill the tanks was a challenge and most of the water suppliers we visited refused to sell to us as they were afraid to not be supplied anytime soon and be out of stock for the next couple of weeks.

With more than 4,200 liters used for the duration of the mission, non- drinking water was by far the most consumed.

For drinking water, we purchased 36 jerrycans of 20 liters each for 1JD each in a small village just before reaching the excavation site. The average person consumes about two liters of water a day but as the temperature in the Jordanian desert reached up to 45 degrees celsius, each person in the camp was drinking around five. Additionally, the water was used to brew tea and cook rice or other pasta-based dishes. Because of the rapid depletion, the camp had to replenish its drinking water each week which meant three people would dedicate a whole day of driving to buy water in the nearest village.

Survival techniques like sewing towels around bottles of water to cool the water inside are also used. When the towel is dampened and cooled by air, the heat transfers out from inside the bottle by process of evaporation and makes the water cold in less than 30 minutes.

There are many risks associated with surviving in the desert but none more common than dehydration and heat stroke. Sunblock and hats are mandatory, and the keffieh (traditional head garb) are soaked and placed under hats to keep cool. Long sleeves and pants are also commonly worn to keep more parts of the body protected from the sun. 

On the field, water is used for two special techniques called « floatation » which includes immersing elements to collect the floating ashes that will later be analyzed and « micro morphology » which is done to solidify the ashes and facilitate their extraction.

Even with all these precautions, three people suffered from dehydration, including one serious case. Stress and fatigue combined with negligence are the main causes of dehydration and being isolated with no phone or internet connection can only exacerbate the situation. As with any archeological mission in extreme conditions, the security, health and wellbeing of the camp members is the most important element to manage.

In the camp water was heavily rationed and a reduced flow tap was used to avoid wasting it. Dishes were washed only once a day and plastic plates are used to reduce the water consumption. On a daily basis, only personal cleaning is done with wet wipes and showers are limited to once a week with only 10 liters designated for each per person, which is on average the amount of water used to flush a toilet. Washing clothes was permitted once a week and done in a small basin.

The bedouins like birds so they brought seeds to feed them during spare time. After a few weeks, the leftover seeds started to flourish by the water tap used to wash the dishes and rince hands after work.

In such extreme conditions and rationing of water is a stark comparison with daily life in other areas of the world. While an Americans consume an average of 500 liters per day for any type of use, an archaeologist in Jordan uses only 15, which includes one third for drinking and cooking. It’s a drastic comparison but also reveals the definite possibility of preserving our resources to only focus on what is essential.

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