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Heart of dryness

The heart of dryness

By James G. Workman
Published by Walker Publishing Company
Website: www.walkerbooks.com
2009, 323pp, ISBN 978 0 8027 1558 6(Hb), US$26

Water is the essential resource for life. We can survive weeks without food and grow crops without soil but we survive only days without water. It is a finite resource and, as James Workman describes very explicitly, we are rapidly depleting water reserves to the point of exhaustion. Global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, 70 per cent of water use is in agriculture, and there are clear signs of water depletion: "Entire irrigated regions of China, India and Australia withered as the Yellow, Indus and Murray-Darling rivers respectively stopped flowing," writes Workman. While in the US, the huge Ogallala aquifer, on which the country's breadbasket Midwest has come to rely, has bottomed out, even as the reservoirs of the Colorado River hold barely half their capacity of a century ago.

But, this is not just another book quantifying and predicting depletion of a scarce resource. Workman draws on the experience and lore of arguably the most ancient race alive today, the San Bushmen of Southern Africa: if anyone knows how to survive what has been referred to as "the coming age of permanent drought" it is these "oldest of mankind", who have learned how to make the most of the arid Kalahari Desert, surviving on a few litres a day while much of the world has a water use of hundreds and even thousands of litres per person per day. The author was attracted to live with the last surviving Bushmen after a career that had taken him from Yale and Oxford to journalism, speech-writing for the Clinton administration, and seven years in Africa and Asia helping prepare the landmark Report of the World Commission on Dams.

The last 'free' Bushmen, among whom Workman lived, were those resisting the Botswana Government's best efforts to force them to give up their ancient way of life by cutting off all external supplies, including water. The reasons for the Botswana Government's vindictive actions are described in moving detail, as are Workman's interactions with the San with whom he lived. It is that experience and what it taught him that provides the full title of this book: Heart of dryness - How the last Bushmen can help us endure the coming age of permanent drought. Witnessing the self-discipline and sharing of resources, and the skills for finding and accessing moisture in their arid habitat led the author to this contrast: "By managing to cope without government water while drought crippled the surrounding state (of Botswana), the dissident Bushmen revealed the inherent fallacy of centralised water control."

All the lessons offered are not readily applicable to our more complex and urbanised society but many of the principles are, and it is for us to accept the challenge to change lifestyles to cope with more limited water availability or to compete and war for what we need. "We are facing the worst hot dry era in 30,000 years," warns Workman. "Mexico is literally collapsing on top of empty aquifers, while Canada's heartland faces unprecedented stress and China lacks enough water to feed itself." Indeed, since the book was written, China has started filling its fourth dam on the Mekong River, further reducing flow and fisheries to the detriment of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The author also warns that, "To make matters worse, in recent years up to a third of global water withdrawals were converted to irrigate new sources of fuel. It takes 9,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of bio-diesel, and 4,000 gallons to produce a gallon of corn ethanol." He adds, "We can envisage a post-oil economy - other sources of alternative energy - but no alternatives to water."

Readers who are policymakers and managers may finally ponder that "we don't govern water, water governs us." And prepare plans against this sombre admission: "The US's most experienced water managers have confessed they lack a solution and looking ahead, say our common future may resemble 'an Armageddon'."

Date published: May 2010


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