Heart of Dryness Book Review

Ali Ong Lee

In this third year of a sustained California drought – in anticipation of more wildfires and amidst climate change crises – we pause, during sporadic spring storms and as Ruth Lake sits at 100 percent capacity to consider another Northcoast Environmental Center library book: James G. Workman’s non-fiction narrative Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought (Walker and Company, New York, 2009).

The author provides this drought analysis by weaving anthropology with hydrology using his background as a Washington D. C. journalist and speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Workman was Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s assistant, helping both to remove outmoded dams and to produce the World Commission on Dams Report.  Workman continues to pursue “the human right to water” in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

Workman nearly died in the Kalahari Desert and concludes that the severely drought-ridden place and its resilient people can infuse us with strategies, with strength, with stories that connect their lack of water with ours, and that connect their plight of perpetual drought to ours.  We are in those times of unnatural stressors on ecosystems when we need to do more, both globally and locally, than pray for rain which provides “the most essential and finite resource, water”.

In this 300-page hardcover, with eight pages of color photographs featuring the ancient Kalahari Desert’s Bush People, Workman follows their battle for land and water sovereignty to exemplify the impacts of government over-control of water.  In eight parts and 24 chapters, Workman addresses such drought issues as:

Land and Aquatic Biodiversity Suffering Extinctions (Chapter 11)

Quest for Meat (Chapter 9)

Water for Elephants Only (Chapter 11)

Primal Instincts and the Realpolitik of Water (Chapter 18)

The End of the Beginning (Chapter 24)

Workman challenges the notion of hydro-democracies and notions of absolute access to water, even though access to water was only starting to be recognized as a basic human right (as opposed to corporate rights) by the United Nations in 2002.  Workman asks:

Is Hoover Dam an “engineering marvel or vast evaporation pond?”

As “human demand rises with affluence”, how do we curb demands for more square footage, more consumption, more water?

Might we consider dry sanitation versus wet sanitation (flush toilets and indoor plumbing)?

To put a face on drought, Workman follows one of the Bush People’s leaders Quoroxloo, for whom drought is perpetual and for which her indigenous people have developed resiliency strategies for water conservation, reclamation, and storing, in addition to social systems for sharing, access, and responsibilities of water stewardship.

Quoroxloo’s people became conservation refugees (incarcerated on restricted parts of their own lands) after the Botswanan government allowed resource extraction (diamond mining) to deplete water tables, to build dams that sped-up water evaporation more than they stored water, and prioritized eco-tourism (and the economic benefits of elephant safaris) over Bush People who were competing for water on conservation lands and were seen to have no economic benefit and, therefore, to have no benefit at all.

What is more, Quoroxloo and the hardiest of the Kalahari Bush People refused to be forced off ancestral land at gunpoint, at the cost of their ways and their lives, as they witnessed relocated brethren isolated at relocation camps, dying of diseases for which they had no immunity, dying disconnected from their ways, their people, their land.

According to Workman, “For any sovereign nation-state government, the conquest and control of water resources is a paramount concern.” The Kalaharians were not treated as a paramount concern, but as an obstacle to watering elephants while the rest of Botswana was being rationed water and a permanent drought took hold as the climate changed, and while diamond extraction escalated.  In 2006, after a protracted case also tried by international public opinion, Botswana’s high court found the Kalahari Bush People to have the right to remain on their ancestral land (inside a wildlife preserve), where they could dance and die without obstruction to freedom, to culture, to water.

Workman concludes that at the turn of the last century, “As Frontier towns like Los Angeles sprawled into megalopolises of ten million, America shared Botswana’s compound pain of booming population and shrinking freshwater.”  Here, as well as there, water scarcity simultaneously drives us apart and together as we come to terms with the fact that “We don’t govern water; water governs us.”  We must also first understand the true weight and worth of each drop of water.  Reading Workman’s Heart of Dryness might help us do just that as another drought looms this summer.

Recommended reading by Workman:
A February 1994 Atlantic magazine article “The Coming Anarchy,” by Robert Kaplan,” links warfare with environmental shortages.”