Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought?

James Workman has achieved what few authors can: he has written a gripping story that engages the reader’s moral passions and he has explored some of the most troubling economic and political problems facing our world without polemic or hyperbole.  At the heart ofHeart of Dryness is the challenge of value:  how do we value water?  How do we value natural resources which are not being renewed?  Who knows how to live in a world of depleted and diminishing resources?  What can we learn from them?  What do we need to do now?

In the subtitle of the book, Workman refers to permanent drought.  Several factors contribute to increasing aridity, defined as the lack of sufficient moisture to support vegetation.  In addition to industrialized agricultural practices throughout the world and population pressures, infrastructures related to water are disintegrating worldwide, so that leakage and waste deplete increasingly demanded resources.  Water tables are falling in North America, India and China as well as the Middle East.  While technology makes it possible to pump from depths of 1000 feet,  this is cost-prohibitive to farmers in many areas.  Where costs for deep drilling can be incurred, however, deep drilling enables access to the nonreplenishable fossil aquifers such as the Ogallala aquifer in the United States and aquifers in the North China Plain and Saudi Arabia.  Once these are depleted they cannot be replenished.

Workman reports in detail how much water is needed in the developed world for food production, sanitation, and lawns and how little of this water is reused or reclaimed.   To better understand the importance of this book, here are some basic facts (from WHO/UNICEF, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development):

884 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water.

2.6 billion people do not have access to sanitation.

1.5 million children die every year from diarrhea.

Agriculture accounts for 80% of the world’s water consumption.

Per day, 200 million hours of women’s time is spent collecting water for domestic use: this lost productivity is greater than the combined number of hours worked in a week by employees of Wal-Mart, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, IBM, and Target.

Over 50% of all water projects fail, less than 5% are visited by funders, less than 1% have any long-term monitoring (see also for many different reports).

One pound of beef requires 5200 gallons of water to produce; midwestern American ranchers have pumped 13 trillion gallons of water from the Ogallala aquifer.

Cattle, which burp both methane and nitrous oxide during digestion, account for 18% of greenhouse gas production; more than all cars combined (see Workman, 86-87 and the fascinating notes on these pages).

As surface water disappears due to the increased demand and increasing evaporation, deep drilling adds insupportable costs to farming, and there is as yet no scientific understanding of the geologic effects of emptying deep aquifers.

What must happen as global aridity increases is that humans must adapt, and specifically must restrain their excess demand and excess waste of water and other resources.  Aridity is not the same as global warming, and Workman provides fascinating comparisons and discussions about the complex interactions of depletion of aquifers, deforestation, and population pressures on water resources. The melting of the ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro for instance is due to aridity consequent to deforestation, not due to global warming. 

Workman takes as his protagonists the Bushmen of the Kalahari.  The Bushmen, living always with arid conditions, as did the Australian Aborigine peoples, developed profoundly efficient ways of storing and reusing water.  Workman’s story is not a happy one, however, for central to the narrative is his description of  the persecution of the Bushmen by the government of Botswana for the sake of diamonds and “modernization.”  Workman describes both the lives of the Bushmen and the actions of their persecutors with meticulous and evocative detail.  One of the most moving passages in the book is his description of the autopsy on the body of the matriarch of the band of Bushmen which showed that she had deprived herself of even the most minimal levels of fluid intake over years in order to supply the rest of the band.  Yet despite this detail, Workman is not self-aggrandizing at any point in his role in this story, and discusses, with candor and charm, his assumptions and how they were challenged.

Workman explores the dilemmas of a resource which is priceless in use but worthless in exchange, and he well documents the attempts to make water a commodity in a priced environment in Chapter 16, “Haggling Over the Source of All Life.”  In recounting the human costs of those dilemmas, Workman gives the reader a thorough history of how governments worldwide have interacted with indigenous peoples.  This is illuminative and disturbing as he shows the shortsightedness of corporations and governments matching both greed and waste.  When a government (not necessarily democratic) or a corporation, decides to dispossess, confine, or eliminate indigenous peoples, the rationales provided range from statements about access to resources to the determination that all peoples must ‘modernize’ according to a policy.  Not only do these arguments often lead to genocide, but they frequently support a biopiracy, a determination to remove for commercial gain exclusively benefitting the imposing authority, the natural resources of a region.  As is clear in the case of Botswana and the Bushmen, the knowledge regarding husbanding of the local resources is not sought by the intruding authority.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari preserved the plants which stored water; passed the knowledge of water flow and plant life in the desert from generation to generation so that with natural variation in the environment, the population could adapt; and shared their environment with animals so that available water could support complexity.  The government authority acted upon defined goals: diamond mining, ecotourism in game reserves, and modernization, each determined according to a specific snapshot in time.  The consequence was, as with industrialized agriculture, an imposition of monoculture and an elimination of factors contributing to ecological balance over time.

One of the issues Workman raises but does not explore from the philanthropic perspective is the moral obligation to provide access to water to sustain life within the context of local knowledge and control of water resources.  The Bushmen certainly live with a complex system of guardianship or governance of water (is this property?), but they do not seem to have a view that governance includes the ability to deny life to others by denying access to water.  The issues of the governance of water are themes in the work of Elinor Ostrom on common-pool resources.  Although Workman does not cite Ostrom’s work, her advocacy of self-management of common resources by a local community is resonant with his own argument.  It is difficult, however, to see how an indigenous people with its own set of moral values regarding property can both interact with and oppose convincingly institutions and systems with greater coercive force and an entirely different set of values.  There is no positive feedback loop, as Ostrom argues to be essential, between the Bushmen and the Botswana authorities, as there was none in Tibet, Australia or North America between the indigenous peoples, immigrant populations, and governments.

The Botswana government, and several others around the world Workman cites, acted as if governance was equal to control and that control included the right to coerce through withholding of access to life-giving resources.  The violence recorded in this book is pervasive and indiscriminate and certainly constitutes a challenge to those who may think that authorities which exert powers of constraint do so by right of being a ‘government.’  Sometimes those authorities are corporations, like De Beers, which conduct themselves as the only recognized power in a region. 

While Workman admires greatly the ability of the surviving Bushmen to withdraw into their desolate lands in protest against the destruction of wells and the restriction of access to water, the lessons to be drawn are not withdrawal, isolation, and invisibility.  If we are to create an epidemic of health as Jonas Salk felt was within our capacities,¹ we must understand what constitutes and supports vitality among our diverse human family.  The Bushmen could recall a time before they were constrained when their chosen lifestyle was supported by the game, the water, and the available plants.  Their world made sense to them, it was coherent, they felt connected to all living things, and they were agents of their own destiny and hopeful for their children as the heirs and creators of their future.²  As Workman explores the increasing political constraints upon their world, we can see how their vitality in every sense was drained away, and very few of them were able to withdraw and preserve the meaning of life in their culture.  Even though we would not choose their way of life, we can see the challenges to our own vitality as we each struggle to maintain our integrity in a world defining success in terms of excess.

Complex interactions between policy decisions, such as Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Euphrates marshes, and regional water shortages have yet to be explored.  Some issues, such as the disappearance of the Aral Sea remain mysterious. Under these same pressures peoples living in the southeastern states of the U.S. are already suing each other over control of rivers, while those in the southwest, dependent on the Colorado River, have reached a point of significant adversarial alarm.   Workman’s comparisons and historical chapters on waste and how water can be conserved are startling in detail.  His notes throughout the book are every bit as intriguing as the main text.

Adaptation will require greater self-knowledge, greater local knowledge, acceptable and respectful means of conflict resolution, innovation, and above all, a long-term view of the ecology of our place in time.  None of those are at present appealing, readily available, or regarded as achievements worthy of pursuit. 

Will necessity be the mother of invention?  Will our preference for (and government subsidies of) meat help eradicate diverse resources?  Will affluent tourism encourage governments to support reserves which are designed for tourists, not for sustainability, at long-term costs to the animals, environment and humans?

These are but a few of the questions Workman raises and illustrates thoroughly in his book.  Economists and political scientists as well as historians and development specialists need to read and reread this book and explore those questions.  Those of us who are fascinated by the issues of altruism and human cooperation need to read the book as a cautionary tale against misguided intentions and false premises of what it means to be human. 

Above all, this book is thoughtful and requires thought.  We live in a time when everything, down to our own genes, is viewed as a commodity.  This book provides a salutary confrontation with the consequences of policies made and market choices driven by such a perspective.  We can and must meet increased aridity with agreement on our common dependence on our common store.  We certainly must learn from the Bushmen to value local knowledge and skills about our environments, and to preserve the best of our traditions in support of a vital future.

Heather Wood Ion is a cultural anthropologist, currently with Athena Charitable Trust, and a contributing editor to Conversations on Philanthropy.

¹; this movement is determined to identify, amplify, archive and demonstrate what is working in the world to support vitality.
² Gary Gunderson, Leading Causes of Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009).

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