Heart of Dryness (1)

In chronicling the Kalahari Bushmen’s saga, James G Workman explores the larger story of water, a 21st-century battleground. The deserts are coming to us, he warns in the first of three book excerpts.

The Kalahari Bushmen – remnants of one of the world’s most successful civilisations – are at the epicenter of Africa’s drought. From the remoteness of the Kalahari, this ancient and resilient people is showing the world a viable path through the encroaching Dry Age. This article is excerpted with permission from Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, by James G Workman, Walker & Company, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by James G Workman.

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-burnt 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 civilisation. 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 sixth of that remained, typically intermarried or assimilated into the margins of the region’s cattle posts or booming economies of Windhoek, Gaborone, Bulawayo, Johannesburg and Cape Town and lingering as an abject underclass, exchanging humility for charity. If the world 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 “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 Fahrenheit [72° Celsius] 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 4x4s 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. And while sources would later differ about the degree of intimidation or physical violence involved, some officers carried loaded weapons; there could be no voluntary negotiation with any remaining free inhabitants.

* * *

The Kalahari is so haunting because its immensity feels, like outer space, so utterly indifferent to life.

Over the eons, winds had blown coarse grains of sand to blanket portions of nine nations. From a narrow wedge over Gabon in the north-west, the sand mantle cascaded down across northern South Africa. Across the Kalahari stretched the most extensive unbroken expanse of sand on the face of the earth.

That said, such “sandscapes” were no longer confined to the Kalahari; in recent decades they had begun to spread faster and almost everywhere. Soils degraded under intense pressure combined with hotter, drier air currents. Abusive and careless land use caused the intricate networks and crusts of lichens, mosses and bacteria to deteriorate, rending the organic fabric that bound mineral particles together. Arid deserts and semi-arid savannas have expanded across one hundred countries — creeping especially across Africa and Asia, but also American states as diverse as Maine and New Mexico and, as witnessed in the 1930s “Dust Bowl”, the Midwest. With rising heat and wind storms, sands cross borders, even oceans, taking nutrients with them to scatter a thin blanket over new lands. The Sahara keeps moving south at 30 miles [48 kilometres] per year. Vast swaths of Africa’s degraded expanding Sahelian region wound up landing, useless, in southern Europe. Each year, China lost a Rhode Island-sized parcel [about 3,140 square kilometers] of fertile land to desert; a fraction of its ensuing sand and dust storms cascaded over North America. But at least half of the planet’s dust in the air today came from arid Africa, and the impact of the drying, everywhere, means the atmospheric dust has increased over the last century by a third. No need venture into the inhospitable Kalahari; the deserts are coming to us.

While not as acutely dry as the Namib, Mojave, Atacama, Gobi or Sahara, the Kalahari’s heart lacked moving or standing water. Some visitors compared its inward-turned, desert-terminus, shallow pan dynamics as resembling a flatter, drier, sandier version of the Great Basin in the United States. Also like America’s western region, the Kalahari’s outer edge was fringed by the ephemeral Limpopo, Molopo, Nossob and Boteti rivers. Few of these streams flowed reliably, if at all, and within the arid heartland lay only fossil valleys, broad desolate depressions, reminders of where greenery once thrived but no longer could. In the north the Okavango and Kwando stopped short of the vast, flat empty basin, known to locals as “the place where rivers go to die”..

Botswana had long been prone to low humidity, high evaporation rates, fickle clouds that might dump three inches [7.6 centimetres] in forty minutes during magnificently violent thunderstorms, or nothing at all. But now aridity was getting worse. During [the elderly female Bushman] Qoroxloo’s lifetime rainfall in the tropics already had declined a fifth while evaporation rose two degrees; river flows had plummeted since 1994. And now climate models fixed southern Africa as the continent’s epicenter of drought in what could only be a hot century. Within decades another expected 20% drop in precipitation was predicted to make the country “completely dry up.”

* * *

If desertification could be confined to Botswana, that unhappy fate might merely be sad for them and comforting to those of us living a safe distance away. Unfortunately climate scientists say this Kalahari scenario — hotter, drier and longer droughts punctuated by progressively rare odds of sudden deluge that can’t easily be contained — appears to be coming soon to a landscape near you. The spread of aridity initially confounded early climate models; a warmer world should in theory lead to a wetter world. Yet for many dense populations the reverse was unfolding; the proportion of the planet’s land surface suffering drought had doubled, due to the heat. From Eurasia and Australia to the Americas and Africa, tropical regions were experiencing dry conditions that had not been seen for the last seven hundred years. Scientists confirmed that no place was safe; climate change was revealing its ability to spawn mega-droughts anywhere on the planet.
What’s more, it turns out that the self-proclaimed climate sceptics were correct to incessantly reassure us that global warming is as old as time and it produces winners and losers. But the less comforting wrinkle they leave out is how, time after time, whenever climate changed in the past, North America lost, big time.

New hard evidence, accumulated from tree ring data and pollen counts, suggests that devastating droughts have shattered human settlements dating back to the epoch when people first arrived in North America. Paleoclimatology remains a young and inexact science, and no one could pinpoint the precise stages at which high temperatures and dryness caused local human extinctions. But the correlation was sobering. Wherever scholars searched, further and farther, they discovered how the sudden change from a wet to dry climate caused most extinction of flora and fauna — the living habitat on which humans depended. Unusually severe and protracted drought ranked highest among the most devastating and calamitous of all climate events because the resulting water scarcity brought wildfires, crop failures, livestock deaths, food shortages, and famine.
At the end of the Pleistocene, temperatures in America warmed by roughly thirteen degrees Fahrenheit [by about 7° Celsius]; with less moisture to moderate, cold winters grew frigid and hot summers fried. The climate transformed entire forests and withered grasslands, wiping out or driving off the prey base humans fed upon. Some 5,000 years ago, flourishing Native American cultures suffered prolonged exposure to climate only slightly hotter than it is today and nearly went extinct.

* * *

Prehistoric collapse might be dismissed as the weakness of “primitive” cultures who would be overrun by European newcomers equipped with the proverbial guns, germs and steel to dominate the New World. But again, new evidence reveals that despite superior technology, immunity and weaponry, America’s first colonies were in fact far less adept at coping with protracted thirst. […]

Following those first unfortunate colonies, the geographically blessed United States enjoyed an exceptionally cool, wet era during which we progressed from agricultural and mercantile economies through a post-industrial Information Age of 300 million highly urbanised people. Even so, during the wettest century of the past millennium a few dry “speed bumps” have profoundly destabilised us, suggesting the level of risks water scarcity held. A relatively mild six-year drought in the 1930s wreaked agricultural and social mayhem throughout the Dust Bowl. A less acute but more widespread drought pressed down across the midwest during the 1950s, extinguishing many rural economies. Over subsequent decades the already arid south-west and west grew increasingly dry. Starting this century, laypersons across America have been observing everyday weather that seems hotter and drier than normal.

Scientists confirm that in fact it is, and will likely worsen in the decades ahead. As humans burned and cleared vast forests, converted land to irrigation agriculture and powered industrial growth with fossil fuels, we were unwittingly baking the earth in what appeared to be an irreversible process. […]

Irreversibly rising heat, migrating jet stream, booming industry, thirsty populations, helpless leaders: The Perfect Drought.
It doesn’t appear to be getting any cooler or damper; both the World Meteorological Organisation and the British Meteorological Office confirm that the 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. 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 so, who will teach us? For the last seven years as the United States 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 civilisation — 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.

Part two: The reckoning
Part three: What would Bushmen do?

James G Workman is a journalist, author and consultant. In Africa and Asia, he helped forge the landmark final report of the World Commission on Dams. Workman is co-founder of the US-based venture SmartMarkets, which partners with utilities to let end-users own, save and trade shares in water and energy efficiency.

For a short video of the author discussing Heart of Dryness, see here.

(This article is excerpted with permission from Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, by James G Workman, Walker & Company, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by James G Workman.)

Homepage satellite image by NASA shows the Gaborone Dam