Q&A: James G. Workman on the Bushmen’s Fight for Water Rights and 21st Century Hydro-Democracy

Workman says chances of the Botswanian government returning water rights to the Bushmen as ‘pretty slim.’

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Welcome to Circle of Blue Radio’s Series 5 in 15, where we’re asking global thought leaders five questions in 15 minutes, more or less. These are experts working in journalism, science, communication design and water. I’m J. Carl Ganter. Today’s program is underwritten by Traverse Internet Law, tech savvy lawyers representing internet and technology companies.

J. Carl Ganter: Our guest today is journalist and author, James G. Workman. He’s written extensively on water issues around the world. His latest book, “Heart of Dryness” is the story of his time with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. He documents their struggle to hold on to their tribal lands and how they survive in the water scarce desert. The Botswanian Government has banned Workman from entering the country for his views that the Bushmen must be given access to the drinking water on their land. Circle of Blue’s Molly Ramsey talks with Workman about his experience with the Bushmen, and what the rest of the world can learn from Bushmen culture and their ability to live with limited supplies of water.
Why do you believe that the government chose to take away the Bushmen’s rights?
James Workman: Well, the Government makes money off of three things in Botswana: in order of priority, it’s diamonds, it’s tourism and then surely after tourism it’s
cattle. All three of those have required prodigious amounts of water [and] they’re very lucrative. They’ve helped Botswana go from being the second poorest country on earth, to one of the middle income countries. I don’t begrudge them that, but they’ve done so at the exclusion of people. Basically, they say, ‘We control every drop in this country. We don’t want other people claiming the water in the Kalahari, and, therefore, we will deny them their ability to dig or transport or carry water to their relatives.’
What do you think the odds are that they’re going to get those water rights back in the Kalahari?
James Workman: Pretty slim. The interesting thing, though, is that more Bushmen keep moving back in. It becomes a tricky thing, as it has been for the last eight
years. It’s one thing to legally say you can’t drill a bore hole and pump water from your well, and another to say you can’t scatter, hunt, gather and get your moisture as you have for 30,000 years through diverse, dispersed and decentralized means. That’s the part that I found so compelling and wrote about in the book, and that’s the part that I think Botswana just can’t get its head around.
You are just talking about the diverse ways that they get their water. Botswana’s government, though, is blocking this one main water well, is that right?
Since the mid-1990s the Botswanan government tried relocating the Bushmen off the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Photo courtesy James G. Workman.
Since the mid-1990s the Botswanan government tried relocating the Bushmen off the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
James Workman: Yes, that’s how Botswana sees water. Whatever it can pump deep from the ground, that’s how it’s getting water to its tourism lodges for swimming pools right near Bushmen settlements. That’s how it’s getting water for its massive diamond mining operations, and that’s how it’s been supporting, basically subsidizing, its cattle industry, which pumps water [and] fossil water from the grounds, provides enough [water] for their cattle, and then ships the cattle off to Europe under special E.U. subsidies, basically shipping their water off with them. The interesting thing with the Bushmen is that they’re able to get water trapped under rocks, in sip wells, in the crooks of trees, in tsama melons and in the rumen of animals that they hunt. They get it from all these centralized sources and they can smuggle some in from the outside as well. It’s pretty hard to kind of monitor that unless you’re going to crack down on every single square foot of the Kalahari, which Botswana hasn’t been able to do over the last eight years. They’re able to single out these high profile [legal] battles and make their rulings, but they can’t control where every person goes in the country.
How much were they relying on this well that they now no longer have access to?
James Workman: They haven’t relied on it for eight years. They’re trying to re-open it. The government had, basically, it had been drilled originally for diamond mining,
and, then, as part of a charitable exercise, the government was saying, ‘Okay, we’ll pump water from here and distribute it out to these settlements.’ Then starting around 1997-98, they started saying, ‘You know, we don’t actually want these Bushmen in here anymore,’ so they capped that, sealed it off with a weathered shed, knocked over the tank, cracked it open and then went further. They went out to the different settlements and found whatever stored water they had there and destroyed them as well, and said, ‘Not only are you not going to get any more water, but you’re not going to be able to pump from this.’ They’ve been without water for the last eight years, and they keep moving back into the Kalahari because that’s their home.
Have you been surprised by what’s happened with what has transpired since then, but also with this court ruling?
James Workman: I’m disappointed because the judiciary had been more independent than the executive branch. They’d shown in the earlier court ruling a defiance of the executive decisions and said, ‘This is the Bushmen’s land. You can’t take that away. They have the right to hunt and gather there. It’s very clear. It’s in the letter of the law. It’s in our constitution and was the intent when Botswana became a country.’ But they seemed to have buckled on this one. I’m a big fan of the Botswana people, and the government deserves a lot of respect for being a country that’s not gone to war, that’s been very transparent [and] that’s been very democratic. I try to see things from their perspective, and, for them, money comes from diamonds, cattle and tourism, and that’s going to be their priority until something like this and a lot of condemnation wakes them up to say, ‘You know what, people deserve the first volumes of water.’ That should be a reserve, just as it is in their neighbor to the south, South Africa. You probably saw that there was a U.N. resolution passed recently affirming the human right to water and sanitation, and interestingly, both Botswana and the United States were among the few who abstained from that.
What do you think this means for Botswana’s image internationally?
James G. Workman
James G. Workman is an award-winning journalist and has served as an environmental consultant to U.S.-cabinet members.
James Workman: It’s tough, because I’ve done my part to probably call that reputation into question. As water supplies vanish, and as heat and growth keep stripping water from countries, they’re going to have to decide who controls the water that unites them. Who owns the rain? If the ruling party in Botswana can control every single drop moving over or under or through the landscapes, then it can do whatever it pleases with it. It’s only going to be when the citizens of Botswana or America challenge that and say, ‘You know, we the people, own our clouds. We decide that we want to secure water foremost for our citizens on an egalitarian basis, rich or poor.’ Only when that happens, I think, is Botswana really going to mature as a democracy, a hydro-democracy.
Do you think that Botswana will get negative press internationally for this?
James Workman: They definitely have been. It’s hurting their partners. Basically, Wilderness Safari is the most vulnerable tourist lodge because it’s gotten permission to go in there and have a swimming pool for its tourists and its safari lodge and pump all the water it needs. Meanwhile, Bushmen 20 km away are denied water. Boycotts against [Wilderness Safari] are putting them in an awful spot. De Beers has backed away from this, saying, ‘Ok, we don’t want any part of this. We’re trying to burnish our reputation as being different from blood diamond.’
So what do you think the Bushmen will do now?
James Workman: I think they’ll do what they been doing for 30,000 years. This is a game reserve the size of Switzerland. They’re going to be able to move in and out of the porous borders. They’re going to be able to live in certain places at the time of year that they want because that’s where they consider home. They’ll keep getting their water, as difficult as it is, even through smuggling it, through sip wells, through tsama melons, or through hunting and gathering. It doesn’t make it any easier for them, that’s for sure, and it puts them in a position, like millions of other people, of being water refugees in their own country.
What do you think it will take to get the Bushmen their water rights back?
James Workman: That’s a tough one. It’s going to require change both from within rather than from without. What it’s going to take, I think, is the same thing it took within South Africa. There’s a few enlightened individuals, some groups like Ditshwanelo, the human rights organization, saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to confront this problem ourselves. We can’t blame it on foreigners. We need to make the changes from within.’ That’s going to require a progressive law, a progressive negotiation, and talking with the Bushmen and their representatives instead of treating them as this strange species that the government seems to be embarrassed of, ashamed of and angry about. And that’s all the Bushmen have been trying to get for the last eight years.
Do you know of or think that there are leaders within Botswana or even within the Bushmen community that have that kind of power to sort of change the dynamic there?
James Workman: I think Roy Sesana is an impressive individual. I spent a lot of time with him. He’s able to walk between the two worlds of the Bushmen and the westerners in Botswana. There was a lot of hope that Ian Khama might change things when he came in, but he’s taken the more militant position of a hardliner. I do definitely think that the majority of citizens and voters don’t want to abuse people. They want to find a way out. If a person within the ruling party or an opposition party can appeal to that feeling and that mood and say, ‘Hey, look. Enough,’ then they will.
Wild Tsama melons are gathered into a secure Kalahari equivalent of a water tower.

Photo courtesy James G. Workman.
Wild Tsama melons are gathered into a secure Kalahari equivalent of a water tower.
What place do the Bushmen have in Botswana’s cultural identity or their place in the society?
James Workman: Like the position of Native Americans in the United States. They’re sort of this cultural pride, at the same time it’s saying, ‘We have moved beyond this prejudice.’ It was backwards in some ways. Primitive is the word they like to use. Now the Bushmen can be like the rest of us. They can drive nice cars and live in cities, and this ignores what the Bushmen wanted. It also ignores and disrespects all the extraordinary gifts that the Bushmen have had living there for 30,000 years, namely, they try to stress how to live with very little water, which is a skill every country like Botswana and the western United States need to learn. They have this ambivalent position about how they feel about the Bushmen. You go there as a tourist and you’ll see pictures of the Bushmen as sort of these fossils, but they don’t like to have them around the tourists now. They feel like now they should be dressed up nice and living in cities like the rest of us. They also don’t like to recognize that the Bushmen were there long before anyone else came. They were the Botswana divisional citizens, and the people in the Kalahari in particular, the ones that have been hanging on there, they’ve been living in Botswana for about 40 or 50 years before Botswana ever became a country. Botswana doesn’t like to recognize that. They sort of say, ‘Oh, we are all indigenous.’ That’s not true.
You had mentioned Native Americans when talking about the Bushmen. Can you think of parallels with other indigenous groups around the world?
James Workman: The Aborigines are the first that come to mind. The Hohokam in the American West—people [who] learn to live with very little. They didn’t have the technology that westerners brought with them, namely bore holes or building giant dams, but they were able to live comfortably and happily within these difficult stresses. They didn’t rely, so they weren’t as vulnerable, on centralized infrastructure and decision making. It was much more about hydro-democracy in terms of egalitarian access to water and use. It wasn’t any outsourcing of decisions and water management. Basically, every single person was their own water manager. I think that made them more resilient. In Australia, the Aboriginal people there, they got along just fine for 13,000 to 14,000 years before the English made it a colony.
Like with these indigenous groups, there are managing water at much finer scales than we tend to in modern societies.
James Workman: They take more responsibility for water themselves. We don’t. You and I, we pass that responsibility on to people we don’t know. We say, ‘Someone else will take care of my water. As long as I turn the tap, then I’m going to be happy.’ The Bushmen, the Aborigines and the Native Americans didn’t have that luxury, so they became much more responsible and cautious and focused on getting the most value out of every single drop.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the second largest game reserve in the world and mostly inaccessible.

Photo courtesy James G. Workman.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the second largest game reserve in the world and mostly inaccessible.
You had mentioned that you are blacklisted or have you been banned from going back to the country?
James Workman: It’s a crazy thing. I’m on a list of 17 individuals that have had our visas revoked saying you can’t come here. It sort of came as a surprise. Basically, about six or seven of us who are writers and journalists, some were activists and some were academics, from all over, but the one thing we all have in common is that we have been critical of Botswana’s policy in the Kalahari. It’s sad that they have gone that route, because one of the things that has separated them from, say Zimbabwe, was their tolerance of criticism, a free press and mobility, and [now] that they’ve restricted on all three of those when it comes to the Bushmen and water indicates how sensitive that issue is to them.
The folks you’ve been in contact with, have they said what the conditions are like there?
James Workman: Yeah, it’s the ones that can go in and out, they’re saying the harassment is what they fear the most. These guys, the game scouts, have been given sort of a free rein to say, ‘You make it uncomfortable for these guys. Obviously, don’t hold them at gunpoint any more. Don’t brutalize them,’ but everything else is pretty much fair game. When I was still going in with the Land Rover, it took a while for people to recognize this isn’t the game scouts, we can come out and talk to this guy. There’s that ongoing fear and that sense of foreboding—what’s going to happen next, why don’t we get the rights that everyone else in this country have.
This ruling is just going to make that fear more intense.
Workman uses the Bushmen's story to reflect on the global water an climate crises.

Photo courtesy James G. Workman.
Workman uses the Bushmen’s story to reflect on the global water an climate crises.
James Workman: It is, and it sort of calls into question how much strength they had under the last ruling that said this is your land, oh, but by the way, you can’t do what you want on your land. This seems to be one of the implications of this ruling. That’s going to be tested probably on the ground, and I don’t know whether there is any higher courts or any appeals. I think there’s a circuit appeals court that moves through southern Africa, and that might become part of the game.
Do you think that there’s a country that has the mentality down that water is a human right?
James Workman: I think South Africa, right to the south, is a pretty darn good example of that. It’s still wrestling with how do you pay for that, and that’s not an insignificant question. I’ve been working on that myself—how I can make it more effective, more efficient, instead of what they’ve done, in that everybody gets their first 50 liters per person per day, that’s pretty progressive. I don’t know other places that have that. South Africa is interesting because it has a mix of first world infrastructure and third world conditions, and it’s trying to bridge the gap between the two. In their constitution in 1997, they said water is a human right. Five, six years later, they said, ‘We’re going to deliver the first amount free and cross-subsidize heavy users.’ Botswana’s looking for a model, and they need only look across the border.

J. Carl Ganter: Circle of Blue’s Molly Ramsey spoke with James Workman, author of “Heart of Dryness”. To find more articles and broadcasts on water, design, policy, and related issues, be sure to tune in to Circle of Blue online at

Our them is composed by Nedev Kahn, and Circle of Blue Radio is underwritten by Traverse Legal, PLC, internet attorneys specializing in trademark infringement litigation, copyright infringement litigation, patent litigation and patent prosecution. Join us gain for Circle of Blue Radio’s 5 in 15. I’m J. Carl Ganter.

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