Heart of Dryness

by James Workman
323 pages, Walker Publishing, 2009

In Review

cover thumbnail for book with title and a dry lakebed

James Workman has seen the future, and it is bone dry. As an international consultant on water scarcity, Workman witnessed the devastation wreaked by lack of fresh clean water in Africa and Asia. As global climate change contributes to droughts, extreme water shortages will become the norm throughout the world.

To see how humanity could survive the coming epoch, Workman’s Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought looks to the Bushmen of the Kalahari, an ancient people accustomed to living with virtually no water. In his stunning new book, Workman describes pragmatic survival strategies, like wringing moisture from melons and delicately tapping tiny pools hidden under dry soil. On the meta level, he uses Bushmen as an example of how societies must completely redefine their relationship with water, shaping lives and social structures around water rather than the other way around.

Workman manages to give a condensed but comprehensive history of water struggles and water management globally, and also to portray the fascinating political realities and complexities of the Bushmen. He tells of how Botswana – normally celebrated as a thriving, democratic, and progressive African nation – moved to systematically wipe out the Bushmen culture and assimilate them into modern life. Ironically, by corralling Bushmen into a “reserve,” providing them water, then later cutting off that water to force them out, the Botswana government forced the Bushmen to rekindle their traditional practices in a brave battle for survival. Workman deftly probes the nuances of the situation, including the misguided approach of global conservation groups and other well-meaning outsiders.

Ultimately Workman insinuates that the Bushmen’s example means we can survive the impending mother of all droughts … but only with a willingness to completely change the way we treat the liquid that makes up more than half our bodies.

Kari Lydersen

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