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.
(In December 2006, Botswana’s High Court ruled that the government was wrong to order Bushmen out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 2002, that their eviction was “unlawful and unconstitutional”, and that they were entitled to live inside the reserve, on their ancestral land. However, the judges also said that the government was not obliged to provide services within the reserve. Since that ruling, the government banned the Bushmen from accessing their only source of water — a borehole in the settlement of Mothomelo that was capped in 2002 — forcing them to make long journeys to obtain water from outside the reserve. The Bushmen returned to court on June 9 to plead for access to the borehole.)
[Under a shade tree an hour after the 2006 ruling], I sat near a young Bushman named Kelejetseeing Moloreng. His family raised him in Mothomelo, but he left the Reserve as a teenager after officials destroyed the borehole. He now had a wife and child, and wanted to bring them to what he still considered to be home in the heart of the Kalahari. I pointed to the discussion and made a questioning face.
“The men, they are talking,” he said in the halting English he had picked up outside the Kalahari, “about water, how to get the water.”
Two of his friends elaborated. Men were debating distances, the limits of mobility into the Reserve, how much water they could carry and what the government might allow. Women worried about the status and distribution of the wild food growing inside.
“Some we eat,” explained Moloreng, “others we drink. They are divided. The food has water inside it.”
I asked the men if they planned to return home. They vigorously nodded their heads, but their eyes left room for doubt. Some had previously been beaten for hunting. Most had been dependent on government services all their lives. “When it doesn’t rain, it is a problem,” said one.
“We grew up with it provided,” added another, “and here was always a tap.”
“But some of your people have never left the Reserve,” I observed.
“Yes,” said Moloreng, looking away for a moment, and then back at me. “They are strong. We are young. We go in during the wet season, when it is green. But during the dry season …” — his voice trailed off.
I scribbled his words down into a yellow pad. He watched my chicken-scratch, smiled, and asked what I was doing. For decades out in the Kalahari, Bushmen had grown accustomed to anthropologists and wildlife researchers working on dissertations, but in recent years the foreigners with cameras, recorders and notepads grew increasingly rare. Perhaps the romantic mystique and novelty was wearing off, and evicted Bushmen were becoming just like 40 million other deracinated people. I explained that I wrote about drought and the struggle over water, and how what unfolded here may foretell what occurs in nations beyond Botswana’s borders.
The connection to people far away seemed to cheer him. “Yes,” he said. “Put this into a book, so the world can know about us and what was done to us. And we can tell the story to our children.”
“Where will you tell it to them? Here in Kaudwane [a designated resettlement area]?”
“No,” he answered. “Inside. In the Reserve. In our home.”
“How will you live there?”
“The old,” said Moloreng. “They know.” He fell silent for so long I wasn’t sure he would continue. Then he added in a quiet voice, “They know how to live without the water.”
* * *
The old may know but they are dying faster than the vast wild places that forged their existence, taking with them strategies about how to adapt to a hot, dry and unforgiving world. Yet during her defiant existence Qoroxloo left a legacy as rich and potent as the rock art of her ancestors. Through perpetual drought and a protracted siege she revealed glimpses of a pragmatic Bushmen code of conduct.
The challenge for the outsider lies in trying to crack this code. Bushmen seemed to help bring clarity to every issue that mattered, from gender roles and child care to the origins of science and the ecological limits of Mother Earth. Bushmen birth-control methods informed global overpopulation debates, while their trance dances and herbal cures challenged western medicine with new ways of healing. The primeval mind was discovered in Bushmen rock art, and their low-carb, gluten-free subsistence diet of meat, nuts, fruits and roots inspired nutritionists to rethink how the affluent should eat. No religious cult took root among these argumentative artists and university academics. Yet when confronting today’s political and moral issues, even atheists began to paraphrase what Christian fundamentalists ask: What would Bushmen do?
If our competitive demand for scarce water drives us apart and escalates 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 organise and mobilise physical resources to meet expanding human wants, but rather to organise human behavior and society around constraints imposed by diminishing physical resources.
To reiterate this book’s thesis: We don’t govern water; water governs us.
What did that mean in practice, for Qoroxloo’s band, and for us? Chapter by chapter, we saw how the scarcity of water governed all vital decisions: who and why to trust; where and when to disperse; what to eat; how much to consume; which plants were burned for fuel, used for construction, or gathered to drink. A water-secure diet emphasised diversified, nutritious, drought-resistant and moisture-rich permaculture over tastier, storable, transportable bulk food, and was harvested nearby at peak water-ripeness. Since tastier feedlot cattle could not survive droughts, hunting favoured desert-adapted game species whose juicy meat concentrated metabolic water. Health, sanitation and medical decisions adroitly embraced aridity to convert waste into fertiliser, establish a buffer zone from disease vectors and provide treatments from the concentrated oils of plants.
We saw how unrestricted liberty allowed dispersal to more abundant water resources, reducing ecological pressure and political stress; and rewarded each individual for drawing on his or her unique knowledge of water extraction from a diversified portfolio of strategies. Creation was not vertically ranked or segregated by species but rather shared the increasingly arid landscape while competing for its water resources. Manufacture of luxurious vanity items encouraged competition and reserved water for more urgent needs. Trained from childhood to avoid evaporation and leaks, Qoroxloo’s band developed their technology in the service of water, sealing it from the hungry sand and sheltering it from the thirsty sun.
Rivalry over scarce water resources has always existed, but against primal instincts toward zero-sum violence our interdependence encouraged voluntary exchanges among networks that efficiently spread out risks while rewarding conservation both within and between bands. Conservatives call these informal markets while liberals see a reciprocal system of egalitarian barter. Regardless of ideology, such exchanges emerge only when a society collaboratively agrees to define and defend a water resource that could be divested.
Rain belongs to everyone and everything, but Bushmen honoured long-standing individual and group rights to water resources: a sip-well, a pan, a buried and labeled water canteen, a field of tsama melons, a grassy hunting territory favored by eland or gemsbok, a wild cluster of fruit or water-filled trees growing along a seep line. Extending rights beyond kin to strangers not only reduced short-term hostility and resentment, but also helped expand an informal safety net of grateful recipients — a reliable form of drought insurance.
* * *
The principles or collective code that worked for Bushmen can be adapted outside their reserve. After all, 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 run 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 drought conditions at every level. 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 our waterworks: what would Bushmen do?
Based on my reading of the evidence, they’d organise us 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 13 potable gallons [50 litres] per day, for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene; others ratchet the amount up to one hundred gallons [nearly 380 litres] 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, recognised 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. 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. Defence 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 [Botswanan High Court] justice Unity 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 state-regulated institutions. Most of these command-and-control structures are now teetering on the brink of physical failure or institutional collapse. The left wants trillions invested to improve all creaky public waterworks. The right wants to privatise them. 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 centralised 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 ageing 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.
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.
* * *
Multiple benevolent side effects could emerge from this voluntary exchange of conserved water, within a confined and distributed network, among autonomous individual rights holders like you and me.
First, we would recognise the true worth of our water in a radically new light, just as a new owner views the same house or car differently from when she rented it. Next, we would take steps to reduce demand. That freshwater we waste down the toilet? Never mind a dual flush; let’s replace it with dry sanitation urine diversion toilet. That bath water? Keep the long, hot shower, but screw in a low-flow, high-pressure nozzle pulse spray and hook the drainage pipe to the backyard garden. Filter and reuse water in the dishwasher and kitchen sink. Through reduced demand of water, frugal utility customers — accustomed to frequent-flier airline miles or mobile-phone units in those sectors — could earn and accumulate water credits they could give to friends and family members or negotiate voluntary exchanges with more profligate neighbours, squandering strangers and wasteful businesses.
Figuratively or literally, we’d be inclined to convert our umbrellas into basins, capturing rain instead of shedding it: homes might explore going “off the grid,” to gather and harvest precipitation from tree canopies and rooftops, and seal it up in underground storage tanks. Much of this water technology already exists. But strong incentives to reduce demand and boost sources of supply would spur the innovation of new appropriate water designs, devolving authority to local and even familial levels.
Here’s the best part. 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.
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 rivers to the Great Lakes and the Columbia, perhaps even in the Middle East.
In other words, landlocked Botswana could learn from the Bushmen living within its dry heart how to break the siege imposed by rival neighbouring 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 civilisations 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 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.
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 is of Qoroxloo, a skilled and pragmatic woman who raised her Bushman family in days of drought when there was no water at all.