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Water Wise

In every region of the world, there are areas of severe water stress. Ten years ago, the Center for Environmental Systems Research at the University of Kassel in Germany released a ranking of countries according to the percentage of territory where water consumption exceeded 40% of supply. The list was topped by Israel and Trinidad and Tobago at 100%, followed by Syria at 99.6%, Nepal at 98.1%, and Kuwait at 97.7%. In Western Europe, the country under the most water stress was Belgium (7th in the world ranking) at 93.9%, with Spain coming second (26th globally) at 72.3%. Other notable countries on the list: India (23rd) at 80.2%, South Africa (28th) at 68.5%, Turkey (29th) at 61.7%, China (36th) at 44.7%, Chile (38th) at 41.1%, the United States (42nd) at 31.3%, the United Kingdom (51st) at 21%, Japan (62nd) at 9.5%, and Russia (70th) at 3.8%.

What this means in human terms is that nearly one billion people do not have access to water and more than 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. This has far-reaching implications for everything from food production to education. About 80% of health problems in developing countries and the deaths of 5 million people a year, including 1.8 million children, are linked to water scarcity and poor sanitation. Africa loses an estimated 5% of GDP annually because of fatalities related to dirty water and the absence of adequate sanitation. Health and nutritional deficiencies are linked to social problems including poor education, skills shortages and rampant population growth.

The question for every community and every country that is confronted by water stress is how to improve access and to manage the limited supply. The numbers suggest that for a third of the world’s population the situation is bleak – many areas including parts of the developed world are heading for permanent drought. If people do not become more savvy and resourceful about water management, the result could be conflict. Water scarcity has already led to violence in hotspots around the world, notably in South America, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Could disputes over what many now call “the new oil” lead to full-blown war?

There is no way to answer that dire question, but a recently published book by San Francisco-based water expert James Workman has offered a glimpse into what a world of permanent drought might be like and how we can deal with it. In Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, Workman chronicles the conflict between the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the government of Botswana when water supplies were destroyed and deliveries to reserves stopped and how the Bushmen have managed in a hard-scrabble world of dryness. In a compelling account of his interaction with the Bushmen in 2002, Workman write of how he witnessed “the predicament of a thousand indigenous people suddenly forced to submit, die, or adapt once again to the Great Thirstland.”

Workman draws lessons from the Bushmen’s predicament for Americans and others who face a future of permanent drought:

“To be sure we will not soon abandon eBay or Wal-Mart to hunt and gather in foraging bands. Nor should we feel the need to. Yet the Bushmen code of conduct may help us escape a Hobbesian or neo-Malthusian nightmare. Prepared for extreme deprivation, Kalahari Bushmen chose the hard responsibility of a dry reality over a government-dependent fantasy of water abundance. Outside of their reserve the so-called civilized world found that for all our military might and Internet bandwidth, certain things still lie beyond our grasp. We discover we cannot ‘regulate’ barren rivers and depleted aquifers any more than we can ‘regulate’ our climate, clouds, or rain. Out here, while elected leaders kneel to pray for a thundershower that will provide temporary relief, the increasingly dry hot wind whistles through the thorn trees in the central Kalahari and whispers the ancient secret those last defiant Bushmen never forgot.

“We don’t govern water.

“Water governs us.”

In the epilogue to the book, Workman offers a shot of optimism to counter the widespread pessimism typical of anybody aware of the world’s water predicament. Scarcity need not lead to conflict, he argues. “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.” A fundamental principle of adaptation that Workman learned from the Bushmen: “not to organize and mobilize physical resources to meet expanding human wants, but rather to organize human behavior and society around constraints imposed by diminishing physical resources.”

The Bushmen, as Workman demonstrates throughout his engaging book, base all their choices – from what and how much to eat to what kinds of medications to use – on their need for water, their need to live. They accept interdependence and organize networks to exchange and share water resources within bands of Bushmen and between them. “Conservatives call these informal markets, while liberals see a reciprocal system of egalitarian barter,” Workman explains. “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 honored 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.”

Workman asserts that the principles that guide the Bushmen in coping with water stress in Thirstland can be adapted to life in a place as far removed from the Kalahari as California. If they ran America’s waterworks, “what would the Bushmen do?” he asks. His answer: manage water by allocating to each person enough for drinking, cooking and sanitation and then letting individuals trade any of their allotment with others, depending on whether they need more or less. An independent water consultant, Workman is not surprisingly promoting just such a community-based scheme where he lives. He believes that such a mechanism would make people realize the true worth of water and would inevitably lead to more conservation and reduced demand. The frugal could provide for less thrifty friends or family – or sell their surplus to the wasteful.

This market could be instrumental in heading off water-related disputes, concludes Workman. “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 to the Great Lakes and Columbia, perhaps even in the Middle East. In other words, land-locked Botswana could learn from the Bushmen living within its dry heart how to break the quiet siege imposed by rival African states surrounding it.”

Pick up a copy of Workman’s book – great reportage and a rich source of fascinating wisdom from the Bushmen of the Kalahari for coping with our water-scarce future.

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