In his wide-ranging and entertaining new book, James G. Workman follows the spread of dryness across continents and through time to outline a grim common destiny of climate change and permanent water scarcity.
"We don't govern water," he writes. "Water governs us," and the lack of it will tear us apart if we fail to learn from survivors of millennia in dry lands: people like the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert Game Reserve in Botswana, a small nation sandwiched between South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Workman, a San Franciscan, isn't a disinterested observer. A journalist and water adviser to a number of international agencies and African governments, he found it hard to maintain a reporter's distance from the Kalahari Bushmen's often-heroic resistance to the Botswana government's effort to drive them from their remaining homes and traditional ways.
The government strategy was simple: cut off water supplies to force the last remaining traditional bands out of the desert and into settlements - more like reservations - just outside the Kalahari game reserve. No longer independent, no longer tied to the land, the Bushmen would survive on government handouts.
But a small band of Bushmen, led by the wise matriarch Qoroxloo, refused to leave their ancestral home, and Workman tells the moving and sometimes deadly story of their resistance in a parched landscape. Facing an implacable foe, Botswanan President Festus Mogae, the Bushmen had to contend not only with the desert, but also with a vicious belief that their "primitive" way of life doesn't belong in a modernizing nation. To us, those challenges would be insurmountable. To the Bushmen, tenacity comes with the territory. It's not heroism; they are just living each day as always.
Walkman tells Qoroxloo's story well, and along the way, he makes fascinating digressions about the forensics of death by thirst, the definition of genocide, the false promise of large dams (Arnold Schwarzenegger, take note), and the forgotten expulsions of indigenous peoples to create national game and park reserves, from the Kalahari to Yosemite and Yellowstone.
Today, however, such expulsions take place on the global stage of Internet media and international human rights activism. Workman's reporting was one of the links to the world outside the Kalahari. For his efforts, Botswanan officials banned him from the country, but they couldn't silence the growing chorus of international protest. Ironically, Workman seems ambivalent about the very activist movements sparked in part by his own reporting. At one point he dismisses the still new, but now global, movement for a human right to water as "enlightened paternalistic eco-socialism." Nevertheless, the activists threatened the twin pillars of Botswana's elite economy: eco-tourism and diamonds.
This is where Workman's story is weakest. He gives us a fascinating history of the diamond industry that dominates Botswana's economy, but shies away from fingering the De Beers diamond cartel as the behind-the-scenes actor against the Bushmen. De Beers in Botswana is far more powerful than General Motors ever was in the United States. President Mogae has been on the De Beers Board of Directors; the company is the largest contributor to his political party; the government is part owner of De Beers operations in Botswana. This is neo-colonial corporate entanglement of the first order, and when De Beers wants to mine diamonds in the supposedly pristine Kalahari Game Reserve, is there any doubt that Mogae gets the hint? Perhaps there is an alternative theme here: "We don't govern diamonds; they govern us."
So, what can we learn from the Bushmen? They can teach us how to live within nature's strict limits and how to conserve not just our water, but our own energies as well. Qoroxloo's stillness in the desert heat conserves her own sweat - the almost Zen wisdom of inaction. It's easy to make analogies to our own energy crisis. As the climate crisis deepens, energy and water conservation collide. The biofuel panacea turns out to be a water-guzzling nightmare, while the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta's giant water pumps are the state's biggest guzzlers of electricity.
But other analogies between the Bushmen and ourselves may prove false. For example, the Bushmen have reduced potential water conflicts among themselves by using what Workman refers to as "informal market transactions" to parcel out water according to need and right. Although we're far past a return to a gift-exchange economy, Workman endorses the Bushmen's example for us too, suggesting we should create localized water markets and individually owned water rations that can be traded, sold and presumably packaged into financial products. The analogy won't hold water.
Instead we have a choice between a political fight to change government water policy or Workman's option for the invisible hand: the libertarian faith that localized water markets are the answer. This is simplistic at best and economic folly at worst. One can imagine Monsanto, Veolia Water and Goldman Sachs guffawing about how we left national resource politics up to them, while we quietly returned to our watersheds. A return is what the Bushmen want and deserve; but it is no longer an option for the rest of us.