Drought-Proof Reviews

Nature Reports, July 30th, 2009, Struggle for Survival, By Eric Roston
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It's the water-dependent modern world that needs saving, not Botswana's besieged Kalahari Bushmen.

Climate scientists know very well that hints of the future may lie in the past, or in what we can glean of it from ice bubbles, tree rings and other proxy evidence. 'Fossilized lifestyles' — such as the ways of Botswana's Kalahari Bushmen — hold similar insights for modern civilization. Living virtually without property or literacy, their communities survive in the Earth's most severe human environment, a place that climate change isn't expected to be kind to. What's more, Botswana has tried now for years to evict the Bushmen from their ancestral home. Having witnessed this searing conflict, James Workman documents it with passion and experience in Heart of Dryness.

A former aide to the US interior secretary under President Clinton, Workman is a water-conservation expert who consults in nations threatened with drought. He's also a journalist who once filed regular reports on Botswana's siege of Bushman lands, an undertaking that earned him a position on the government's blacklist.

In Heart of Dryness, Workman crafts the story of the Bushmen's struggle — environmental as well as political — into dramatic narrative non-fiction. Full of conflict, this is a story with implications for how people far from the Kalahari may choose to live decades hence, when water is in increasingly short supply.

One clear message is that modern society could learn much from observing the Bushmen, whose lives and culture are optimized for conserving water. The community venerates elders in part for their knowledge of the environment: it's good to have people around who can remember how everyone survived the previous drought. In the absence of rivers to sip from, Bushmen gather tsama melons, natural canteens that ripen in dry winter months. Hunters prize eland, swift and nimble ox-size beasts whose meat provides protein and hydration.

The English language couples enmity and water in a word, rival, related to the Latin rivalis, or someone you share water with. Rivers are a common enough territorial boundary. But really, Workman points out, water draws people together, for better or for worse. If you want to separate people, put a desert between them.

Would that it were so easy. Despite their seeming isolation, the Bushmen have always had relationships with the outside world. Pumps built by the state ensured that the most arid regions never became too dry. This arrangement lasted until 2002, when Botswana, frequently heralded in the West as a success story, destroyed the pumps and cut off the desert dwellers' water in a campaign to force them out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

The country's reasons for doing so, which included pressure from two industries beloved by developed nations — diamonds and ecotourism — were publicly picked over for the next few years. The Bushmen brought a suit against the government, arguing against evictions and for a human right to water, a topic in democratic political philosophy that dates back at least to the Magna Carta. The CKGR holdouts stayed. In a founding insight of the book, Workman realizes, while stranded during a poorly conceived stealth water delivery, that the Bushmen don't really need saving: he does, and by extension, so does modernity.

The Bushmen's story is rich with dramatic elements. Few fiction writers could get away with offering the metaphors that Workman creates from his first-hand observations: Water. Desert. Beasts. Guns. Courtroom drama. In parts, Workman's prose further elevates a powerful sequence of events, and at one point — the close of Chapter 22 — he achieves gold-medal writing in an artful cascade of clauses that aspire to the famous last paragraph of James Joyce's short story "The Dead".

Workman has a lot of material to cover and synthesize into one tale: the Bushmen and how they live, Botswana and why its democracy falters (hint: water), the foreign influences, the activists, the attorneys, the desert, and why Westerners should take notice. As a consequence the book runs at two speeds, and while the seams are smooth, they're still there. Several early chapters are filled with insightful anthropology, vivid anecdotes and factoids worth jotting down. But their expository nature slows down the narrative propulsion, which resumes as temperatures rise.

The service Workman ultimately performs is to humanize climate change and integrate it with history, human rights, trade and international law. In fact, Heart of Dryness succeeds as a 'climate book' in part because it needn't be read as a climate book. 'Climate' is a category paramount mostly to rich Western nations that can afford science. But going forward, climate change may have less to do with nations cutting carbon and more to do with people cutting water. As with zebras or elephants, when people don't have enough water, all bets are off.

Many authors place in endnotes material they can neither part with nor fit in the book. Workman employs these to graft in discourses on everything from rubber bullets to how to pronounce four phonetic 'clicks' and their typographical symbols. He drops this line into a note to his prescriptive epilogue: "If necessity is the mother of invention, Bushmen have shown us that the real invention lies in social innovation."

And there's the rub. Electric cars, solar power, and carbon capture and storage are technologies heralded as part of our solution set. But to paraphrase American gunmakers, coal doesn't burn the planet; people do. Workman lays out the "seven habits of highly successful foragers". Number 7 is "Subordinate taste to survival." If more people could do that alone, our lifestyle might look less and less like a twentieth-century fossil.

Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age, is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. He writes a weekly climate news analysis at http://www.ClimatePost.net.
e-mail: eric.roston@duke.edu

Amazon, May 5, 2009

 "Touching narrative," May 5, 2009
By  Malvin (Frederick, MD USA) - See all my reviews
Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What's this?)
"Heart of Dryness" by James G Workman is an extraordinary account of the Kalahari Bushmen's struggle for survival in Botswana, Africa. Mr. Workman combines years of public service, scholarly research and fieldwork to the project, allowing him to make connections between the global and the local as only he can. As the earth's climate warms, Mr. Workman contends that the insights gained from how the Bushmen have adapted to conditions of acute water scarcity can prove invaluable in guiding humanity towards a more sustainable future.

Mr. Workman's book profits from his time spent among the Bushmen, to whom he became a trusted friend and ally. The Bushmen shared their survival strategies for coping in a drought-stricken environment, revealing their resourcefulness, ingenuity and humanity. Qoroxloo, the matriarch of one particular clan, is especially revered for her wisdom and unselfishness; the story of her refusal to surrender her autonomy in the face of hostility from Botswana's government provides inspiration to the Bushmen and to all who read Mr. Workman's touching narrative.

Throughout the book, the experiences of the Bushmen are compared and contrasted with the industrialized world's increasingly difficult attempts to manage its finite water resources. We learn that the Bushmen have developed sophisticated life strategies that allows them to live within the constraints imposed by water, understanding that humans do not govern water: water governs us. However, the lust for diamonds has spelled trouble for the Bushmen as Botswana's government attempts to oust the inhabitants of the Kalihari from what was previously thought to have been worthless land, and bringing the issue of economic development versus human rights to light. (Of course, Mr. Workman excels at drawing our attention to the irony of the squandering of precious water resources essential to human life in exchange for access to a commodity that can be otherwise produced in laboratories.) As Botswana and other nations find it more difficult to find the water necessary for expanding their economies, Mr. Workman suggests that humanity must redefine its relationship with water in a manner that is more aligned with Bushmen values, including the Bushmen's non-ideological ethic of responsible ownership of the gifts that nature has bestowed to humankind.

I highly recommend this remarkably perceptive, humane and well-informed book to everyone.

Water Efficiency Watch Interview

James Workman, author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought

JGWorkman_color_photo_smJames Workman is an author and co-founder of SmartMarkets, LLC, a business focused on web-enabled ecommerce, online social networks, and the green movement with the goal of improving water and energy use.  Workman will be the keynote speaker at the AWE Networking Event on Monday, June 21, 2010 at the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago – an event held in conjunction with the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition.

Water Efficiency Watch: How long have you been working/researching/interested in water and water conservation and how did you first get started? 

James Workman: In 1994 U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt hired me as a writer to help prepare remarks and position resource policies. I was excited by sexier charismatic issues like endangered species, wildland fire, salmon, national parks, and wildlife refuges, but I quickly discovered that all these issues trace back through their roots to increasingly scarce water. Soon I was hooked; I grew obsessed with the removal of old, obsolete dams, and I came to realize the fate of civilization turns decisively who controls fresh water.

Cover-Heart-of-dryness_smWEW: Your book refers to “the coming age of permanent drought”.  What do you mean by this and what sort of future do you think water utilities in North America should be preparing for?

JW: For hydrologists and engineers, drought has a narrower technical meaning. As a non-scientist, the book defines drought for the lay reader as arriving through the inexorable convergence of booming populations, worsening pollution, rising prosperity, careless waste, distorted economies and unprecedented climate flux. Augmenting supply is rarely an option outside of conjunctive use; even where rainfall may increase it comes too fast and furious to store. And whether they are private or public, North American water utilities operate as “natural monopolies,” which limits options when it comes to reducing demand.  You can unilaterally impose higher rates, or crack down with rations, but both risk political backlash and lost operating revenues. We’ve been forced between Scylla and Charybdis, until the Bushmen showed us an alternate route.

WEW: Your book has been praised for the way it describes the plight of the Kalahari Bushmen.  What are the three most important things the last Bushmen can teach North Americans about water resources management?

JW: First, let people own their water. Bushmen respect informal title to water resources, whether that means water in sip wells, springbok bladders, baobab trees, ostrich eggshell canteens, plastic barrels, or tsama melons. Given the human instinct to care for what you own, it makes sense to entrust end users with equal daily shares of the first, say, 50-100 gallons that flows through their meter. It’s their water, after all; utilities hold it in trust. Letting people own some makes it politically easier to charge steeply for anything more.

Second. encourage trade. Romantics think of them as “proto-Marxists,” but Bushmen truck, barter, and exchange water resources, negotiating informally within their transparent network and beyond their bands. Trade is the counterpart to ownership. A proposed “human right to water” – as a global movement now advocates – is self-defeating unless that water can be defined, owned and exchanged. Only then is there an incentive to use less rather than more. Frugal and innovative individuals who reduce their demand out of greed for valuable efficiency credits will expand resilience and efficiency for all.

bushmen_smThird, unlock monopolies. In the Kalahari, no species dominates. No chief rules. Interaction is voluntary. And nature abhors a monopoly. Bushmen are freer than the average voter or Fortune 500 CEO in the U.S. because they do not depend on one central monolithic entity for the very source of their existence. Utilities who loosen the rigid, brittle forces of monopoly can breathe with flux. They become resilient, gain efficiencies, and negotiate with end users as partners rather than as rivals. 

WEW: Some believe that we will have roughly the same amount of water falling from the sky in the future, but that it will be distributed differently and that there will be water supply “winners and losers” in the future.  Do you agree?  What can we do today to mitigate the impending water crisis?

JW: I do agree; but the climate models and current observations indicate the wet places will know floods, the dry places will know droughts, and all places will grow hotter and evaporate faster. Right now people migrate to the very cities – Atlanta, San Antonio, Las Vegas, San Diego – that are drying up. Sure, trade in goods with embedded water will help mitigate the crisis, but it won’t diminish its vice grip. So the way things stand the ‘losers’ will be the same they have always been: poor people and aquatic ecosystems. The winners will buy Evian, use A/C and vacation in New Zealand. For me, and for Bushmen, the essence of resilience is liberty to choose, and that’s why we need a mitigation system that lets us voluntarily save, own, and trade shares of water efficiency credits within utilities.

WEW: Are there too many people on Earth?  What do you see as the linkage between population growth and the climate and resource challenges we face today? 

JW:  Affluent Americans often draw this ‘population bomb’ conclusion, and claim my book supports their position since Bushmen keep families small, unlike so many of the world’s poor. I respectfully disagree. I suspect the world could support 15 billion people if we all conserved and innovated efficiently like the Bushmen, or it can support three billion people if they all consumed like me and my profligate American family of four. The Earth’s population matters far less than how we use its resources.

Kahalari-squeezing-water-frWEW: What are the three things you remember with the most satisfaction in your career so far? 

JW: Reworking drafts with my mentor, Bruce Babbitt. Publishing a book that synthesized my experience in a dramatic narrative. And translating the lessons of the Bushmen into an ambitious new business venture that partners with utilities to scale up Kalahari coping mechanisms.

WEW: What do you wish you had done differently? 

JW: Life provides its own correctives. If I hadn’t been such a self-righteous young man in a hurry, I might have seen the folly of trying to ‘rescue’ Bushmen where they lived; but then I broke down in the middle of the Kalahari, which was a wonderfully humbling experience. If I hadn’t been so focused on defensively “conserving wild nature” I might have seen earlier that conservation is really all about proactively harnessing “human nature.” Again, that epiphany came through a conversion in the desert.

WEW: What emerging trends/issues intrigue you right now?

JW: Evolutionary behavioral psychology, game theory, the locovore movement and what my colleague Monty Simus coined as the “watergy nexus” of quantifying the carbon footprint of water use, and the water footprint of electricity use.

WEW: What words of wisdom would you offer to new water conservation professionals?

JW: There’s a lot of excitement about how “stationarity is dead” and how “climate change undermines this basic assumptions about water management.” But I think it would be a mistake for students and professionals to obsess on a quest for a new paradigm that relies on expensive climate models using more complex data points. I believe that we don’t manage water; water manages us. By that I mean that resilience and development and risk reduction will come less through understanding and ‘improving’ natural systems than on understanding and improving human systems.

WEW: How can our readers contact you? 

JW: By all means, and thank you! For information on the book visit www.heartofdryness.com or www.smart-markets.com (for the business emerging from it) and people can then either reach me through the sites or through my e-mail address.

Advance Praise for Heart of Dryness

 “An astonishing synthesis of human and natural history, folly, scarcity, beauty, dignity and power. Heart of Dryness is a must-read for anyone invested in the future of life on earth.” --Rick Bass
 “In a highly original and very realistic manner, Heart of Dryness addresses one of the most important issues of our time. Workman's experiences and insights are fascinating. Botswana’s Bushmen are perhaps the most knowledgeable people in the world about water. The result is a real page-turner.” --Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

 “A fascinating read and great adventure story. The water challenge of this century must be informed by looking back in time to traditional desert cultures like the Bushmen.”  --Bruce Babbitt

“Heart of Dryness is an investigative and story-telling triumph. Workman's near-death experience upon entering the Kalahari places him, and us, in a position so primal that compassion suffuses every ensuing perception of the Bushmen. This remarkable book speaks to every neglected water user and water source on earth, showing a way back to accountability, sustainability, abundant life, and hope.”
--David James Duncan

“Here are the universal politics of water uncovered by a storyteller who, from despair and tragedy in the Kalahari, opens our eyes to the planetary struggle underway to secure water for life on Earth. To win that struggle with water crisis looming, we will have to urgently learn from the water wisdom in Heart of Dryness." --Mark Smith 

“What distinguishes this book is Workman’s ability to unpack the complex dynamics and politics surrounding one particular water conflict in the Kalahari and provide insights into how thi
s particular situation sheds light on wider sector challenges across the globe.  This is critical reading for those rightly concerned about the sustainability of our planet where water resources are under growing stress."
--Ned Breslin

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2009

An impassioned yet clearheaded look at how we are squandering our most precious natural resource…A persuasive appeal for hydrosustainability and hydrodemocracy.

    As much as this is an exploration of resource recklessness, it is also a thoughtful examination of how Kalahari Bushmen contend with water scarcity. Water consultant Workman’s guide to the ways of the Bushmen is the elder woman Qoroxloo, a storehouse of received wisdom from her ancestors who actively challenges the government of Botswana, which is trying to drive the Bushmen from their territory for reasons of greed and self-entitled superiority. Though Workman refrains from painting Qoroxloo in an overly romantic light, readers will find it difficult not to admire her elemental decency and respectfulness. As such, it seems natural that, when in doubt about water use, many ask, “What would Bushmen do?” Workman delineates Qoroxloo’s hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, cooling strategies, pharmacopoeia, modes of sanitation and lessons about breaking up into smaller groups and thinning out. The author also highlights her courageous battle with a thuggish government while living precariously during drought time. From Qoroxloo’s lessons, Workman draws insights into productivity, crop diversification and adaptation to rainfall, the geography of production and consumption and global water politics. So what would the Bushmen do in the United States? “Based on my reading of the evidence,” writes Workman, “they’d organize 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 freshwater required to keep each human healthy and alive.” Individual responsibility toward water is critical, Workman says, and it’s important to remember that “[w]e don’t govern water. Water governs us.”
    A persuasive appeal for hydrosustainability and hydrodemocracy.

Publishers Weekly, June 29, 2009
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Passing references to water woes along the Colorado River and rainfall shortages in the Southeast that have cut hydropower pepper this dramatic report on the looming American (and global) water crisis. Workman filters his apocalyptic forecast through a slice of micro history: the (almost genocidal) 2002 decision of Botswana to force a minute population of Bushmen—inhabitants of the arid Kalahari Desert for tens of thousands of years—off their ancestral lands by sealing the only borehole that provided water to 1,000 desert dwellers and then dumping stored water into the dry sand. The heart of this numbing report on the government's use of water as weapon is Bushman matriarch Qoroxloo, whose ability to wring precious liquid from deep roots and animal carcasses is testament to a wise elder's gritty determination to help her band survive against formidable political and geographic odds. The author's belief that water-starved Western cultures might adapt to a “coming age of permanent drought” based on pragmatic Bushmen ways posits an unlikely cultural transformation, but his journalistic depiction of a tribal David's triumph over a governmental Goliath is riveting. (Aug.)