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“We don’t govern water. Water governs us,” writes James G. Workman. I n Heart of Dryness, he chronicles the memorable saga of the famed Bushmen of the Kalahari—remnants of one of the world’s most successful civilizations, today at the exact epicenter of Africa’s drought—in their widely publicized recent battle with the ...
“We don’t govern water. Water governs us,” writes James G. Workman. I n Heart of Dryness, he chronicles the memorable saga of the famed Bushmen of the Kalahari—remnants of one of the world’s most successful civilizations, today at the exact epicenter of Africa’s drought—in their widely publicized recent battle with the government of Botswana, in the process of exploring the larger story of what many feel has become the primary resource battleground of the twenty-first century: the supply of water.
The Bushmen’s story could well prefigure our own. In the United States, even the most upbeat optimists concede we now face an unprecedented water crisis. Reservoirs behind large dams on the Colorado River, which serve thirty million in many states, will be dry in thirteen years. Southeastern drought recently cut Tennessee Valley Authority hydropower in half, exposed Lake Okeechobee’s floor, dried up thousands of acres of Georgia’s crops, and left Atlanta with sixty days of water. Cities east and west are drying up. As reservoirs and aquifers fail, officials ration water, neighbors snitch on one another, corporations move in, and states fight states to control shared rivers.
Each year, around the world, inadequate water kills more humans than AIDS, malaria, and all wars combined. Global leaders pray for rain. Bushmen tap more pragmatic solutions. James G . Workman illuminates the present and coming tensions we will all face over water and shows how, from the remoteness of the Kalahari, an ancient and resilient people is showing the world a viable path through the encroaching Dry Age.
One stinking hot day during the austral summer of 2002, the sovereign Republic of Botswana dispatched twenty-nine heavy trucks and seven smaller vehicles to converge on southern Africa's arid core. To reach their designated target, the drivers had to traverse one of the most kidney-jarring, axle-snapping, sand-blasted, and sun-burned landscapes on Earth. The destination lay at the heart of what local languages translate as "the Always Dry." Others call it "the Great Thirstland." On maps it is labeled the Kalahari Desert.
The convoy ground through flat savanna as drab bunchgrass and thorn trees rolled past the windows. Only the rare sight of springbok or ostrich broke the monotony. Eventually the vehicles crossed an invisible threshold and entered a territorial reserve inhabited by bands of indigenous people known as the Gana and Gwi Bushmen.
For tens of thousands of years Bushmen and their ancestors had thrived in this unforgiving landscape. According to geneticists, linguists, and ecological scientists, these people constituted the remnants of the world's oldest and most successful civilization. But over recent centuries almost all were violently uprooted and displaced by better armed settlers: white farmers and ranchers encroaching from the south, black Bantu herders moving in from the north. Where half a million Bushmen once proudly strode the subcontinent as its sole inhabitants, barely a fifth of that number now lingered as an abject underclass. Many had intermarried or assimilated into the margins of the region's cattle posts or economies of Windhoek, Gaborone, Bulawayo, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. Scattered from their Kalahari homeland, Bushmen were typically relegated to a serflike existence, exchanging humility for charity. If the world largely wrote off Africa as a hopeless case, and if urban Africans dismissed rural tribes as ignorant and crude, even the poorest African looked down on chronically "destitute and miserable" Bushmen.
For hour upon hour, the top-heavy vehicles jerked and careened forward as their fat wheels churned through the sand. That sand could reach 162 degrees on the surface, and in the peak of the day the heat expanded air pockets between the coarse grains, making the sand so soft and loose that even 4 x 4s bogged down. Drivers who let enough air out to increase rubber-to-sand traction increased their risk of a punctured tire. The maddening route grated on nerves already exposed by the unpleasant task they had to perform. And yet "it was not all gloom and sadness." Indeed, "the camaraderie lifted their spirits and brought playfulness to their character." Since "no one wanted to be a failure," the convoy made a game out of their assignment, and it became a "marvel to watch them display their prowess in attempting to outdo each other" as the jocular drivers raced each other toward the center of the Kalahari, unable or unwilling to turn back.
Their assignment had been carefully mapped out in advance. Execution of orders was intended to be swift and unemotional. Sources would later differ about the degree of intimidation or physical violence involved, but some officers carried loaded weapons, for there could be no further negotiation with any of the remaining inhabitants.
Those still-intact bands of a thousand or so Gwi and Gana living at the center of the Kalahari felt confident in the ancient desert home from which they, unlike so many Bushmen, had never been driven. But even they owed their political asylum to international mercy. In the decade after the Second World War, upon learning how Israel was founded as a refuge for European Jews, Bushmen sought from England an equivalent for Africa's genocidal victims. "Listen to the weeping of a race which is very tired of running away," they pleaded. "Give us a piece of land, too. Give us a piece of land where our women will not be taken from us."
In 1961 several British colonial officials leaned over a crude map of Botswana's sand-filled heartland, scratched straight lines into a twenty-thousand-square-mile trapezoid, and proclaimed the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. In doing so they drew upon the precedent of America's protected parks, refuges, and forests—wilderness areas set off-limits from development and kept uninhabited by people. But on this particular landscape, rather than seek a pristine virgin ecosystem, British officials planned to "reserve sufficient land for traditional land use by hunter-gatherer communities of the Central Kgalagadi" where the last surviving bands could develop on their own terms, free from relentless persecution to near extinction. Inside that hunter-gatherer haven, a thousand Bushmen clung fast to their autonomy in places with names translated as "Vulture Water," "Fossil Creek," "Kneel to Drink," and "Nowhere." Within their sanctuary Bushmen maintained a cultural identity unto themselves; they enjoyed a proud political autonomy that for various reasons annoyed and even threatened the more powerful surrounding Botswana republic. Outsiders referred to these central Kalahari Bushmen as the Last of the First—a distinction the approaching convoy planned to end.
Despite early popul ar reports of their existence in a "Lost World," Kalahari Bushmen were never mythical Children of Nature, sealed off from surrounding economies in an airtight bubble. Men occasionally walked out to work distant mines or ranches, while others trickled back and forth to exchange meat and skins for tea, tobacco, marijuana, blankets, and colored beads. Far-ranging hunters beat fence wire into arrow tips, pounded metal into spear heads, and made quivers from scavenged plastic PVC pipes. Like all of us, they adapted to available resources. Yet as the reserve's sole human occupants, Bushmen had not been overwhelmed by the currents of the outside world. If anything, small groups of semi-nomadic pastoral tribes like the BaKgalagadi, arriving four hundred years ago, had been transformed to adopt the dryland survival skills and indigenous intelligence of the Kalahari's original inhabitants. So the British mandate never intended "to preserve the Bushmen of the Reserve as museum curiosities and pristine primitives, but to allow them the right of choice of the life they wish to follow." The enclave was to be their eternal refuge. If they so chose, proclaimed Botswana's founding father, Sir Seretse Khama, Bushmen could remain on their ancestral homeland "forever."
Forever ended January 31, 2002. On that day Botswana's new president, Festus Mogae, unleashed a "hive of activity with Toyota Land Cruisers, Land Rovers and five-ton trucks" into the Kalahari's epicenter to sever the Bushmen's relative isolation and to merge them—one way or another—into the modern nation-state to which he decreed they must belong.
The final push toward forced assimilation had been building for quite some time. Over several decades, tensions had been simmering between the dominant Tswana rulers and the Bushmen, an uneasy animosity more condescending than inter-tribal tensions with Herero, Matabele, Shona, or Kalanga, and more racially acrimonious than between whites and blacks. Some Tswana still considered Bushmen to be a distinct African species or regarded them as malata, meaning serfs, or even pets, livestock, and indentured servants. Lately, the "modern" Bantu rulers' attitudes toward what they called "primitive" Bushmen had worsened, sinking from neglect to embarrassment to outright hostility until there no longer seemed to be enough room for the last ancient bands to remain in a landscape larger than Switzerland. That's when carrots extended to persuade Bushmen to move were replaced by sticks to coerce them. "How can you have a Stone Age creature continue to exist in the time of computers?" Mogae had demanded. "If the Bushmen want to survive, they must change, otherwise, like the dodo they will perish."
The dodo did not perish in passive isolation. Its demise came as a direct outcome of the aggressive invasion by hungry and thirsty outsiders who displaced the indigenous species from its prehistoric habitat and dominated control of finite natural resources. With the invasion of his convoy President Mogae determined to follow that precedent by targeting the most essential and finite natural resource, water.
Mothomelo, a settlement that lay at the heart of the Kalahari reserve, held the Bushmen's only borehole. For more than a decade a pump had lifted water from deep beneath the sand to provide a thousand people with supplementary water, distributed by government tankers to other scattered camps radiating out in all directions, where the water was stored until the next delivery. Upon arriving, the convoy executed its primary task. Trucks had unloaded their heavy equipment while officials tried to ignore the noisy protests of those odd people out here who in slang were "dwelling in the deep beyond the deep."
Technicians sliced through the metal and dismantled the secure pump. A square steel plate was welded over the pipe until it was sealed permanently shut. Next, the officials overturned the plastic reservoir, allowing water to flow out until it was empty, and finally proceeded to crush it so that it could never be used again. Bushmen watched officials pour out their last, precious drops of water into the sand.
Eventually the convoy drove on through the sands to each of the remaining Bushmen settlements, where the government proceeded to complete the termination that it had undertaken and destroy the official supply of water it would never restore.
Cutting off anyone's water supply provokes a visceral response, and from outside the Kalahari came a furious backlash. Human rights groups launched a series of aggressive protests, vigils, boycotts, petitions, and lawsuits to save the last of those charismatic people best known from National Geographic essays or the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. Condemnation poured in from New York writers like Gloria Steinem, Hollywood celebrities like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, supermodels like Iman and Lily Cole, rock stars like Jackson Browne, and, with less fanfare, diplomats from Europe, the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department. Botswana's critics alleged the torture and genocide of Bushmen by officials who were motivated by lucrative ecotourism or blood diamonds, but against this noisy propaganda war the nation-state only dug its sovereign heels in deeper. Driven by powerful incentives that it tried in vain to conceal, President Mogae's government proceeded to test the blameless Bushmen's endurance and faith in a series of losses seemingly torn from the Book of Job, and systematically stripped away everything that Bushmen valued most in the world. Officials hauled off their spouses, siblings, parents, sons, and daughters; then the government sealed off contact, halted medical access, burned their foraging fields, and spread cash, alcohol, and a mysterious deadly plague among idle, bored, and broken families. With the help of snitches paid to inform on old friends, it beat and crippled young fathers for seeking protein, fired shots into women and children, and ultimately imprisoned families within a tight perimeter, threatening death to those who crossed an invisible line. But perhaps this comparison is not entirely appropriate; throughout his biblical ordeals, even Job had been spared his water.
Naturally I sided with the Bushmen forced into oblivion, abandoned, left in the desert without government water. Yet among the continent's menu of atrocities even a bleeding heart must choose its battles. You cannot live long in Africa and be shocked—shocked!—to discover that well-connected elites of a dominant tribe here were exploiting weak and marginalized ethnic minorities of another.
The shock was to discover that Bushmen hung on.
A core group of young and old diehards showed no signs of backing down or surrender. Despite constant government pressure and water deprivation, a number of Bushmen clung fast to their sands. Even a rudimentary census is impossible, since many people would melt into the desert at the sound of approaching vehicles, but the government and Bushmen claimed the number of intransigent residents was as low as seventeen or as high as two hundred, respectively. They refused to be evicted. Through sheer cunning and savvy these stubborn Kalahari dissidents not only resisted Botswana's siege but did so during one of the hottest and longest droughts in the region's history.
Over time I began to absorb the larger context and deeper meaning of their defiance. During its siege of the Bushmen at its waterless core, Botswana maintained superior force, technology, global communications, and financial resources. Yet global warming soon evened the odds. Even as President Mogae cut off the Bushmen's water supply, his own dams quickly began to vanish under nonstop scorching sun and rising winds that blew in hot gusts powerful enough to rip windsocks off airstrips. Each day, crucial federal reservoirs were evaporating above while pipes kept leaking millions of gallons below. With no streams to call its own, Botswana groped beyond its borders for rivers shared with equally parched neighboring states until border disputes erupted, armies mobilized, and the government found itself in the same disquieting position it had forced the Bushmen: landlocked, surrounded, isolated, desperate, and dry.
The Bushmen's quiet tenacity humiliated Botswana, but it also humbled me. Up to then my career had been spent trying to reform and modernize various nations' governmental control of water, and I had focused my efforts at the summits. I had exposed state water follies as an investigative journalist, crossed over to become an aide to America's top federal water bureaucrat, joined an unprecedented consortium to shape global water governance, and from there advised state officials from Argentina to India to Indonesia and China, collaborating with leaders from the World Bank and the World Conservation Union while helping Nelson Mandela chart a new global course for water policy. It was all rather heady stuff. Then along came these Bushmen to shatter my prejudices. By managing to cope without government water while drought crippled the surrounding state, the dissident Bushmen revealed the inherent fallacy of centralized water control. In the process they revealed my ambition—international water expert—to be an oxymoron. In the face of scarcity all water, like all politics, becomes emphatically local.
A few radical hydrologists were reaching similar conclusions, at least in theory. To eliminate water scarcity, went their hypotheses, government must force water underground, distribute water outward, decouple rate structures that suppressed water's real price, decentralize water use decisions, and devolve water allocation to the lowest level. This modest proposal might cost $1 trillion per year, and assumed leaders might willingly surrender their power to convert the political economy to a hydro-democracy in which water managed, regulated, and ruled its people.
In reality no civilization anywhere had the discipline to impose or tolerate such exacting self-rule. The one exception was the besieged Bushmen. I went to find them, in order to unlock their enduring code of conduct before it too was lost to the wind.
My motivations were hardly altruistic. In 2002 the most conservative vulnerability scenarios for the United States showed its groundwater declining, its snowpack shrinking, its infrastructure leaking, its dams choking with sediment, and its reservoirs evaporating. The Bushmen's present augured Americans' immediate future: the end of dependence on easy access to government provision of abundant freshwater.
Looking ahead, the prospect appeared even more bleak. Temperatures in America were projected to rise one degree Fahrenheit every decade while the World Health Organization estimated that deaths from heat exhaustion would double with each degree. Even as American politicians loitered in collective denial, the United States was absorbing the first spasms of an aberrant climate. Flash floods paralyzed sewage treatment plants, while heat waves baked topsoil and mushrooming populations collided with never-ending dry spells. There appeared to be as many ways for Americans to run out of water as there were definitions of drought.
Excerpted from Heart of Dryness by JAMES G. WORKMAN Copyright © 2009 by James G. Workman. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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