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.
By late 2004 after a dry austral winter, Gaborone Dam stood at 27% of capacity — the lowest in its history. Experts gave it seven months. “In the event that the Gaborone Dam runs dry,” assured nervous officials, the government “has come up with strategies to deal with the situation.”
Botswana failed to specify exactly what kind of strategies. But months later, one hot day as Gaborone Dam dipped further to another record low, water officials fanned out. They rang bells, shoved pieces of paper through doors and gates, and departed. The text was uniform, printed on tens of thousands of copies, and reached every home, large or small, and broke the news. With 12 gallons [45.4 litres] per citizen under storage, mandatory austerity was in order. No watering, sprinkling, irrigation or hosing down pavement. No water on playing fields, parks, gardens, or cars. No urinal flushing. No water in swimming pools. No more cheap water. After that, Botswana rationed what little trickled out. Unable to block the sun, unwilling to plug its leaks, the government forced citizens to swallow a pill that was arguably more bitter, destructive and odious than taxes. Just as it first imposed on Bushmen, Botswana would now restrict and then perhaps cut off freshwater delivery to every citizen.
Worldwide, cities had imposed similar restrictions, from Los Angeles in the 1970s to Atlanta in 2007. Such draconian measures worked, at least temporarily — within six months Botswana reported a 35% drop in water use – but often extracted a heavy toll. In the process of rationing water, the governments wrought sudden, inequitable, and often permanent devastation. Trust was shaken. Water-intensive companies were forced out of business. Real estate prices plunged, undermining new development and economic growth. Even water utilities risked slitting their own throats. Rationing reduced their operating revenues and budget; rather than burning off fat, the headquarters office was predisposed to lay off its most skilled and experienced workers, leaving only the slowest, least motivated, and poorest paid staff less able to monitor dam levels, investigate leaky pipes, explore coping strategies, or enforce the rationing it had just undertaken. Rather than austerity, water rationing brought incompetence. Water restrictions not only curtailed civic freedoms but shrank the ability of governments to rule.
Week after week the restrictions clamped down on Botswana. Lawns browned while exotic flowers and shrubs drooped and cracked. In early 2005, the Water Utilities Corporation spokeswoman enthused that Gaborone Dam was still 23% full (as opposed to 77% empty) but warned that “those who did not comply” with rations and restrictions “would face the full wrath of the law.” She wasn’t joking. The government set up a hotline for snitches to inform on neighbors, who were slapped with fines and penalties.
Extreme measures became the default option of countries ranging from Botswana to the United States, where drought-struck south-eastern counties unleashed nighttime patrols to crack down on unauthorised outdoor watering, and shut off the taps of repeat offenders. As they faced stiff fines and high prices, Americans turned on each other. “We’re taking hundreds of calls from people who are ratting out their neighbors,” said Janet Ward of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management. “People are angry. What do you expect? If your lawn is brown and blowing away, and the neighbor’s is all green, you know what’s going on.”
As spigots dried up, so did jobs. As jobs dried up, crime rose along with xenophobia, and for the affluent citizens and expatriates the dry hot place stopped being a fun place to live. Looking out at the dust of what used to be lush backyards, many began seeking literally greener pastures, departing with their firms, skills, bank accounts and garden parties with them, just as international donors and development agencies also pulled out of the “economically graduated” country. Facing a withering and contracting economy, the government grasped at straws. Water minister Charles Tibone toured Gaborone Dam and pronounced that the waters it held would only sustain the city for five more months, whereupon “it would have to look elsewhere.” Such as? If the situation continued to worsen, thirsty satellite cities like Serowe and Mahalapye would be cut off, in order to preserve the nation’s capital. […]
As water ran out, urban triage began, sacrificing many to save the few. Some officials pondered rainmaking. But there were no clouds to seed, perhaps driven off by Gaborone’s urban structure. The shiny office buildings, air conditioning, hot automobile engines, kitchens and asphalt roads all accumulated, trapped heat in the city, and scattered any moisture. This phenomenon — the urban heat island effect — helped raise average temperatures from Phoenix to Las Vegas [in the United States] another five degrees Fahrenheit [2.7° Celsius] since the 1960s and models suggested they would rise another 15 to 20 degrees [8.3° to 11° Celsius] to over the next generation or so, reaching the point where blood vessels boil, causing massive heatstroke and dehydration.
Four decades after following confident foreign advice, Botswana suffered a mid-life crisis. It had copied the best practices from the United States and Sweden, to the UN and World Bank. It had progressed from abject poverty to stable middle-income status. And yet it was now teetering on the verge of a dry nervous breakdown. To figure out quickly what it was still doing wrong, the country hosted an international water symposium attended by 90 experts from five continents whose countries would endure what Botswana faced right now: rocketing populations, higher demand, shrinking supply, stresses from desertification, and global warming.
To Botswana’s horror, the upshot was that Gaborone Dam had been a grave and potentially fatal mistake. Centralised large-scale reservoirs made arid countries increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Water supply projects concentrated populations and increased dependence at a time when cities should disperse and decentralise demands. Dams only made sense in rainy countries. In arid areas like Botswana, with temperatures rising a degree every few decades, not only did dams fail to help nations get through dry spells, they actually further increased the risk of drought. New dams could be built, and even hooked to aquifers for recharge. But that would be pointless. By then, scientists said, rivers would have completely shriveled up, with no runoff to store. Far better, said experts, were small-scale, noncentralised, locally managed autonomous water reservoirs, where rain could be efficiently trapped, stored, transported, and used.
In short, somewhere out there in the Kalahari, Qoroxloo’s band [of Bushmen] got it exactly right.
[The Bushmen strategy was not only to secure water away from the sun, but never lose it in transport and delivery to the body. Qoroxloo taught her grandchildren how to care for that vital water as if it were one of them. For indeed it was – more than any other substance, water carried the life force.]
In crises, people look to government. Botswana’s government looked up at the clouds or covetously at neighbouring rivers. [Then-president Festus] Mogae’s top advisers expressed no public regret for terminating delivery into the reserve, but some of his lower ranking officials privately confided to me their anger at having squandered so much water from all citizens, gone forever. By September 2005, as Gaborone Dam hit a historic low at 17%, or nine gallons [34 litres] per citizen, the country grew increasingly tense. In response, Mogae asked his people to join him in praying for clouds to release their rain, known as pula, and for the strength to make sacrifices: use less water, treat water as a precious necessity, cultivate arid-adapted indigenous plants, recycle gray water, convert to low- or no-flush toilets, punish water waste, prevent evaporation, harvest rain, and recharge aquifers as a matter of principle.
At the start of the siege, Mogae’s officials cut off water into the Kalahari reserve because “the Bushmen want to become like everyone else.” Now Botswana wanted everyone else to become like the Bushmen.
As water kept vanishing faster than the government could supply it, scarcity began forcing everyone to compete, as rivals, for what was left. Neighbours grew suspicious and hostile; nations warily eyed their shared river borders; the line in the sand sealing off the besieged Kalahari was only the latest and most prominent rivalry emerging in the arid region. Before that rivalry could escalate into violent confrontation, Bushmen were left two peaceful routes to negotiate their security and survival: buy water as a market commodity, or secure it as a fundamental right.
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.
(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 photo by James Workman shows unbowed Bushmen at Metsiamenong, home to Qoroxloo’s band, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.