James Workman: Who Owns the Rain—When Thirsty Democracies Deny Individual Liberty to Water

Acclaimed water expert and author James G. Workman reflects on a recent ruling by the Botswanan government that compromises the water rights of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.

By James G. Workman
Special to Circle of Blue

Baobab by Makgadikgadi Pans

Photos © James G. Workman
In the James G. Workman’s book, Heart of Dryness, we see the legacy of the legal battle between the Bushmen and Botswana’s national government unfold. Baobab image courtesy of Makgadikgadi Pans. Click image to launch slideshow.

For 30,000 years Bushmen have lived in the Kalahari Desert and for eight years Botswana has tried to force them out. Recently, under a quiet policy of forced dehydration, the government declared Bushmen could no longer dig for or carry their own water.

It may seem an odd blip in a distant land, but the official ruling has implications for thirsty people in all modern democracies—including ours. It raises uneasy questions about individual liberty and limited government, namely: Whose water is it, anyway?

Heart of Dryness
Heart of Dryness available at Amazon.com

Water is arguably humanity’s oldest political bond. U.S. citizens may differ by age, class, race, gender, tribe, religion, or party. But we are all, quite literally, connected to each other through a vertically integrated water system that links national rivers to our household meters.

Here’s how it works. Federal laws divvy up rivers among states; state commissions allocate water to farms, industry or cities; municipalities pipe water to and from 309 million Americans. From Roman to Californian aqueducts, water unites us.

Conversely, water shortages divide us. Scarcity breeds social distrust, turns neighbors into rivals and undermines political security.

Consider Botswana—Africa’s oldest democracy had a pristine reputation for transparent governance; it had never waged war, foreign or domestic. But as national thirst escalated through years of protracted drought, elected officials there deployed water to besiege and persecute a harmless ethnic minority in an ongoing Kalahari conflict.

First the ruling party blocked water tankers, welded shut the Bushmen’s only well, and poured out their water into the sands. Soon officials shot and arrested men carrying water to their families. Then it blocked wives and mothers from gathering moisture embedded in food. Now this policy of state-sponsored thirst has been officially cemented in place.

What makes a thirsty democracy deny water to its own people? We may not like the answer, since it makes us complicit in the cause.


Photos © James Workman
Since the mid-1990s the Botswanan government tried relocating the Bushmen off the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Photo courtesy of James G. Workman.

Americans enjoy eco-safaris with swimming pools on Kalahari game reserves. We eat filet mignon fattened up on Kalahari cattle posts. We buy De Beers diamonds extracted from beneath Kalahari sands. Botswana’s three core exports – tourism, beef and carats – are prodigiously lucrative, but prodigiously thirsty. They generate billions in foreign exchange for the government, which lets it ensure a per capita income of $5,900. The only price for growth, it seems, is that parched individuals must surrender their liberty.

James G. Workman
James G. Workman is an award-winning journalist and has served as an environmental consultant to U.S.-cabinet members.

We could feel righteous outrage at this situation, if it didn’t so closely resemble our own.

My own state of California’s waters are constitutionally reserved for exporting tourism, irrigation farms, livestock, and minerals. Rain harvesting is illegal in many Western states. Our top-down water works are mini-monopolies that unilaterally decide who consumes how much water at which rates for what uses.

Meanwhile officials ration or fine us – and encourage neighbors to snitch on us – if we sprinkle gardens on wrong days, flush toilets too often, plant lawns too big, or are served water in restaurants without asking. Adding insult to injury, if we save too much water we are punished with higher rates.

To this day, I still have no legal standing over my tap. Last October Governor Schwarzenegger terminated a bill (1242) that would have secured my individual right to water. Like Botswana, the U.S. also abstained from a U.N. resolution on the human right to water.

Right now a third of the world lives in water stressed countries, so these thirsty democracies face a reckoning. As water supplies vanish under rising heat and growth, voters will have to decide who controls the water that unites us – who owns the rain?

If the ruling party can control every drop moving over, under and through our landscape, then it can do whatever it pleases with it. Citizens must, like Bushmen, submit to decisions ostensibly for the ‘greater common good.’


Photos © James Workman
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the second largest game reserve in the world and mostly inaccessible. Photo courtesy of James G. Workman.

Yet as Botswana shows, that’s a slippery slope. The power to deny water is the power to withhold life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Democracy means reclaiming our most precious natural resource from state-run, rent-controlled, top-down water monopolies.

It means telling our government: enough. We, the people, own our clouds. We shall secure our water foremost for all free individual citizens on an egalitarian basis.

Hydro-democracy may come to Botswana, eventually; it should start in America, today.

James G. Workman is co-founder of SmartMarkets, LLC, and author of the award-winning narrative nonfiction book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought. Read excerpts from Heart of Dryness on Circle of Blue.

1 reply
  1. Tony Simeone says:

    Very informative and well-written. I host a link to Circle of Blue on my blog and frequently refer to articles which I will do to this one as well. California’s “success” and issues are nicely presented in the book “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner. In my mind, it’s all about increasing populations and degraded resources – especially land and water.

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