“Heart of Dryness” and Peer-to-Peer Water Networks

from http://paulbhartzog.org/node/133/

I recently read Heart of Dryness (http://www.heartofdryness.com/) by James G. Workman. In an age of permanent drought, this book explores what we might learn from the Kalahari Bushmen about how to manage water resources. The book is well-worth reading, both intellectually and emotionally rewarding.

Circle of Blue is doing a 7-part series of excerpts here: http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2010/world/heart-of-dryness-reversing-the-politics-of-water-scarcity-from-the-kalahari-to-suburbia/

The Bushmen’s strategy for acquiring enough water to survive (p 68 – 72).

1. harvest water that accumulates in plants
2. defer to those who have experience managing resources
3. diversify your diet to get water from many sources
4. eat locally and seasonally
5. use least disruptive technologies (like a stick) for finding water
6 . innovate when you can
7 . survival takes precedence over preferences

The Bushmen get most of their water from foods they eat. In societies with water abundance there is a dichotomy between food and water, eating and drinking (drinking is an inherently abundance-based concept relying as it does on the assumption of readily available amounts of water).

After looking at the conditions of global drought and a variety of solutions, Workman asks the question: how would desert dwellers like Kalahari Bushmen organize water in our current global society?

He concludes the following (p 244):

  • “They’d organize us around the measurable contours of the hydrological unit where we live: water known to exist within an aquifer or river basin.”
  • They “would secure the fundamental and minimal amount of freshwater required to keep each human healthy and alive…. as a fundamental human right.”

But, he points out that, “the flip side of our individual endowment demands is that each person owns this water as an individual responsibility.” Interestingly, “the bushmen code of conduct allows people to negotiate informally over the water resources they require, reaching out to partners with whom to exchange if and when they need more or less. People increased supply by efficiently reducing demands, and the benevolent result of the integrated informal right to water brought bushmen into a relative state of social abundance.”

And finally, Workman ends with the following, which is worth quoting in full (p 245):

Justice Unity Dow said “‘water does not belong to the government: It belongs to each of us.’

“Or it would if we had not already given it away. All of us growing up in cities and suburbs have surrendered both our right and our responsibility to water to state-run or -regulated institutions. Many of these command-and-control structures are now teetering on the brink of physical failure or institutional collapse. The left wants trillions borrowed and invested to improve all creaky public waterworks. The right wants to privatize them.

Yet ideology aside, it matters little whether our taps and pipes and sewers can be traced back to a government utility or a corporate venture if both operate as absolute top-down centralized monopolies that impose involuntary and uncompetitive rates and quality with which we cannot, by definition, negotiate. Public or private utilities are neither good nor evil; but right now they still remove all real incentives and accountability to conserve water efficiently, while making us dependent on aging infrastructure, political fecklessness, wasteful approaches, and unreliable supply in a radically changing climate.”

Knowing that the coming centuries (at least) are constituted by the emerging panarchy, Workman’s book resonates with that world: water for everyone, managed by everyone.

Ultimately, as Workman and the Bushmen remind us, “We don’t govern water. Water governs us.”

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