Heart of Dryness: Reversing the Politics of Water Scarcity from the Kalahari to Suburbia

The final installment of our seven-part series of excerpts from James G. Workman’s Heart of Dryness examines how we define water rights for the Bushmen in Botswana as well as suburbanites in the U.S. Workman stresses that the Bushmen’s incredible survival is a warning call for other populations that have yet to endure such water-scarce conditions. As water becomes more scarce, and consequently more political, Workman asks us to question how we’ve “surrendered both our right and our responsibility to water to state-run or-regulated institutions.”

Botswana Bushmen

Photo by James G. Workman
In this final excerpt from Workman’s Heart of Dryness, the author weaves several segments together to understand the political battles that often accompany water scarcity, and the problem of complacency when water is in abundance.

By James G. Workman
Special to Circle of Blue

The dark side of drought and water scarcity isn’t economic stagnation; it is political implosion.[1] Scarce water fragmented society and curtailed liberty. It eroded trust. When drought-struck, the local governments from Atlanta to Los Angeles rationed individual water consumption to one-tenth of what people normally consume each day. [2] It cracked down on private well pumps, claimed and regulated waters for public consumption.

Outside the Kalahari, these political responses are almost universal. Conflict is inevitable, as most recently witnessed in Boston supermarkets as families brawled over the last bottled water. “Other hazards tend to pull people together,” said Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, speaking of water’s power. “With a drought, because it’s a limited resource, it tends to drive people apart.” [3]

Divide us it did. Southeastern states have sued one another for remnant water, and even Maryland challenged Virginia over control of Potomac River currents for the first time since the Civil War. [4] As citizens appealed to government, governors appealed to God. In July 2007 Alabama Governor Bob Riley declared a week in July “Days of Prayer for Rain.” In November, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue gathered people together on the capitol steps, bowed his head, and appealed to a higher power for relief. “We’ve come together here simply for one reason and one reason only,” he told the gathering, “to very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm.”[5]

Irreversibly rising heat, migrating jet stream, booming industry, thirsty populations, helpless leaders driven to their knees: The Perfect Drought.

“El Nino anomalies aside, it doesn’t appear on the horizon to be getting any cooler or damper; both the World Meteorological Organisation and the British Meteorological Office confirm that last decade was the hottest on record, and reputable observers maintain that our current mega-droughts represent the overture of what will follow for centuries.”

El Nino anomalies aside, it doesn’t appear on the horizon to be getting any cooler or damper; both the World Meteorological Organisation and the British Meteorological Office confirm that last decade was the hottest on record,[6] and reputable observers maintain that our current mega-droughts represent the overture of what will follow for centuries. Based on new evidence that the Global Warming Era was dawning sooner than expected, even Nobel laureate Al Gore changed his mind: prevention alone was not enough, and too late. Now, he said, we must rapidly learn to adapt to less water.

If that’s the case, who will teach us?

For the last seven years as the U.S. broke records for high temperatures and low reservoirs and prepared for what could become the worst hot Dry Age in 30,000 years, the remnants of the world’s oldest civilization—the only people with the survival savvy, strategies, tactics, and values to guide us through the extremes of our once and future drought—were embattled in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, surrounded by armed men who were urging these last free Bushmen to surrender their way of life forever…

For more than a decade even the wildest drylands in Africa no longer held autonomous bands who might share their self-sufficient experience. Then Botswana’s convoy destroyed the last government water supplies and deliveries inside the Reserve, triggering their crisis—and my opportunity.

I saw America’s fate inextricably linked to the predicament of a thousand indigenous people suddenly forced to submit, die or adapt once again to The Great Thirstland. The survivors had to tap into the deep reservoir of indigenous wisdom, and I hoped to grasp the essence of their unwritten code. For centuries Bushmen had been shot and infected, poked and prodded, and now, facing the onset of permanent droughts, I set out to exploit them one last time.

The ‘Last of the First’ welcomed me to their fire. I listened to what often seemed serious debate but was later translated as spectacularly lewd banter. During a lull one evening, as it grew cooler, I moved with tape recorder and camera from one Bushmen to the next until coming to an unspoken matriarch. In exchange for smuggling contraband water and other supplies, I sought to extract from her and others a few Important Answers to Big Questions, namely, “What will you do without government supplied water?”

She kept scooping flesh out of a tsama melon, trading gossip with another.

“How are you going to manage water during the drought?”

The old woman shrugged without looking up and shifted back on her heels. Next to her a small fire burned. It was more smoke than flame, but never seemed to go out.

I persisted. “Do you think you could manage enough water for your family and your band to last until the rainy season?”

“Back then, her caginess didn’t make sense. Years later it began to. It wasn’t that Bushmen didn’t want to answer; they just couldn’t.”

Like others before her, she grew evasive. Repeating the question through my translator met with awkward silence. Back then, her caginess didn’t make sense. Years later it began to. It wasn’t that Bushmen didn’t want to answer; they just couldn’t. As an ‘international water expert’ my grilling Qoroxloo about how humans must manage water was like a Vatican cleric interrogating Galileo about how the sun must orbit the earth.

To be sure, we will not soon abandon eBay or Wal-Mart to hunt and gather in foraging bands. Nor should we feel the need to. Yet the Bushmen code of conduct may help us escape a Hobbesian or neo-Malthusian nightmare. Prepared for extreme deprivation, Kalahari Bushmen chose the hard responsibility of a dry reality over a government-dependent fantasy of water abundance. Outside of their Reserve the so-called civilized world found that for all our military might and internet bandwidth, certain things still lie beyond our grasp. We discover we cannot ‘regulate’ barren rivers and depleted aquifers any more than we can ‘regulate’ our climate, clouds, or rain. Out here, while elected leaders kneel and ask us all to pray for a thundershower that will provide temporary relief, the increasingly dry hot wind whistles through the thorn trees in the central Kalahari and whispers the ancient secret those last defiant Bushmen never forgot.

“We don’t govern water.

Water governs us.”

We don’t govern water.

Water governs us.

If our competitive demand for scarce water drives us apart and escalates political tensions, this same finite supply of freshwater is also itself what ultimately drags us back and binds us together. We may not like the rule of increasingly scarce water, but at the same time we cannot escape it. And Qoroxloo’s band demonstrated how to embrace that reality. Her fundamental rule of adaptation was not to organize and mobilize physical resources to meet expanding human wants, but rather to organize human behavior and society around constraints imposed by diminishing physical resources.

Whether it pulses between a competing heart and brain, sinks down in the shared aquifer beneath our fenced-off private property, or flows in the common currents that runs along or across our walled-off borders, water is quite literally the connective tissue that links and rules our fates. Only this magical glue makes us collaborate to endure scarcity. If we are to prevent dehydration, domestic strife, or degeneration into the ruthless Hobbesian/Darwinian scenario and if we are to avoid testing the nightmare hypothesis of a trans-national water war, then we need to derive a system like that which for millennia sustained people in the Kalahari.

Given the scale and complexity of our current political economy, what might this system look like? How do we obey water’s rule? If Qoroxloo’s band ran America’s waterworks: what would Bushmen do?

Based on my reading of the evidence, they’d organize us politically around the measurable contours of the hydrological unit where we live: water known to exist within an aquifer or river basin. Then, within that unit their code would secure the fundamental and minimal amount of fresh water required to keep each human healthy and alive. Some researchers peg this quantity at thirteen potable gallons per day, for drinking, cooking, and basic hygiene; others ratchet the amount up to one hundred gallons per person per day. Let’s conservatively assume the upper limit, which still lies below America’s comfortable average, and secure it as a fundamental human right, the kind Bushmen owned, recognized and respected in others. The flip side of this individual right is that it demands we also own water as an individual responsibility.

Human nature takes over from there. Confronted with finite limits imposed by drought and siege, the Bushmen code of conduct allows people to negotiate informally over the water resources they required, reaching out to partners with whom to exchange if and when they need more or less. People increased supply by efficiently reducing demands, and the benevolent result of their integrated informal right to water brought Bushmen into a relative state of social abundance.

This informal right may seem on the surface like what liberals vehemently demand from the UN, in which under a binding convention governments collectively hold federal water on behalf of the public, safe from the clutches of commerce.[7] If anything, Bushmen sought the opposite. It was not trade itself they feared, but the lack of secure access to the water resources they needed to trade in the first place. Government’s primary role would then be to uphold their individual or band’s right to access water—water that they already inherently owned and traded in reciprocal, lateral, and mutually beneficial exchanges. Defense of this kind of individually defined and divestible water right is a far cry from the enlightened paternalistic eco-socialism espoused by the so-called global water movement. It more accurately reinforces Justice Unity’s Dow’s assertion that water does not belong to the government: It belongs to each of us.

Or it would if we had not already given it away. All of us growing up in cities and suburbs have surrendered both our right and our responsibility to water to state-run or -regulated institutions. Many of these command-and-control structures are now teetering on the brink of physical failure or institutional collapse. The left wants trillions borrowed and invested to improve all creaky public waterworks. The right wants to privatize them.

Yet ideology aside, it matters little whether our taps and pipes and sewers can be traced back to a government utility or a corporate venture if both operate as absolute top-down centralized monopolies that impose involuntary and uncompetitive rates and quality with which we cannot, by definition, negotiate. Public or private utilities are neither good nor evil; but right now they still remove all real incentives and accountability to conserve water efficiently, while making us dependent on aging infrastructure, political fecklessness, wasteful approaches, and unreliable supply in a radically changing climate.

“In an era of permanent droughts, that is not a desirable place to be.”

In an era of permanent droughts, that is not a desirable place to be.

Like Qoroxloo’s band, however, we can use our will and our cunning to reclaim what has always been rightfully ours. Government must ensure equitable delivery of water, but it need not be the institution that delivers it. In a free democratic society we can demand that water agencies restore and protect our inherent human right to water—say, the first one hundred gallons per day, owned by each of us—in return for our once again taking responsibility for using it wisely, free to truck, barter and exchange any surplus water within that right that we manage each day to conserve.

In the spirit of Bushmen, we could demand water exchanges within aridity’s authoritarian rule, in other words: unlimited markets within natural monopolies.[8]

Rather than pressure politicians to keep water rates low, build more dams, drain more wetlands, pump more deltas, expand storm drains and sewers, and plunder more aquifers, we would all be pulled in the opposite direction. We would nudge governments to raise rates higher and across the board, to reward our efficiency, make the water we conserved worth more, drive us to more efficient exchanges, and restore substantially more leftover wild water back to all those endangered aquatic species.[9]

However small, local, and interpersonal in its origins, this translation of the Bushmen code of conduct could be replicated and scaled from the bottom up, from urban utilities to irrigation districts to international transboundary waters. By redefining water as an owned and tradable right that turns costly conflict into symbiotic cooperation, security analysts suggest that exchanges like those among Bushmen could alleviate national security tensions over border-crossing aquifers and streams from the Rio Grande and Colorado to the Great Lakes and Columbia, perhaps even in the Middle East.[10] In other words, landlocked Botswana could learn from the Bushmen living within its dry heart how to break the siege imposed by rival neighboring African states.

My interpretation may or may not accurately convey what the late Qoroxloo would have outlined, either for her resilient and humble band or for our far more rigid and profligate civilizations growing thirsty outside the Kalahari. Then again, even while living she never was one to lay down rules or dictate advice to friends and family, let alone foreign strangers like us. She didn’t write a code of conduct. She lived it. As drought dragged on, she danced against the armed and unthinking political forces closing in on her, until finally, and on her own terms, she broke free.

When I think of the permanent drought we face in the years ahead, I like to picture her as last seen by her band of foragers: calm, defiant and aware, striding purposefully across the hot dry Kalahari sands while singing an ancient song quietly to herself…and to anyone else who might care to listen.

Read more of Workman’s Heart of Dryness on Circle of Blue.
* Footnotes

[1] Michael Dudley, “Cities Abandoned? Mass Migrations? The Questions No One is Asking about Drought.” World Environment, PlanetCitizen.com, November 18, 2007.

[2] Leonard Doyle, “The big thirst: The great American water crisis; the US drought is now so acute that, in some southern communities, the water supply is cut off for 21 hours a day,” The (UK) Independent, November 15, 2007.

[3] Lynn Waddell and Arian Campo-Flores, “Dry—And Getting Drier: The severe drought has Georgians praying for rain—and battling with their neighbors,” Newsweek, Nov 16, 2007.

[4] Linda Greenhouse, “Justices Consider Dispute on Use of Potomac River,” New York Times, October 8, 2003.

[5] Jenny Jarvie, “Gov. to God: Send Rain!” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2007.

[6] Matthew Jones, “All 11 hottest years were in last 13: UK Met Office,” Reuters,
December 14, 2007.

[7] See Maude Barlow’s Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. As a tireless activist leader Barlow deserves credit for putting the right to water on the global radar screen, but her anti-privatization ideology blinds her to the practical fallacy of what she seeks. An inalienable right to water, held as a public trust by the government, which no one can trade, is the equivalent of a right to vote, held in trust by the state, which no one can cast. It confines individual liberty and diminishes social opportunity. Barlow seeks to disenfranchise in the name of empowerment.

[8] As Saltzman, in Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water observed, there is ample precedent for this combination: A rights-based water management regime is clearly not a new idea. The Right to Thirst in Jewish and Islamic Law, sharing norms in Africa and India, and the “always ask” custom among aborigines all depend on a universal norm of access to drinking water by right in times of need. The Aqua Nomine Caesar practice in ancient Rome of free water was rights-based, as well – a right of provision guaranteed by the Emperor. Treating drinking water supply as a priced resource is by no means a new idea, either. The vectigal, a tax on the private consumption of water, funded operation of the Roman water system for centuries. Private water vendors underpinned much of New York and London’s water supply through the 19th century, and now supplies London once more. Nor, finally, are these two identities mutually exclusive.

[9] The Bushmen survival strategies have also shown why we might be suspicious of the current top-down environmental flow regimes, requirements and regulations. Experts have their place, and I by no means consider myself anti-intellectual or anti-elitist. But anyone who has tried to set aside a certain amount of water “for nature” faces the same lack of political clout as another who tries to set aside water “for extractive industries” or “for agriculture.” Each indirectly represents a vague constituency; my particular special interests may or may not diverge from your own, but in any case we each seek bigger slices from what we assume to be an expanding pie. We want it all.

[10] Franklin Fisher and Annette Huber-Lee, “Liquid Assets: An economic approach for water management and conflict resolution in the Middle East and beyond,” Resources for the Future, 2005.

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