Into the Heart of Dryness
As the communications officer of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, I often give presentations about the institution to students and the public. I like to start with something general, something pithy, such as “Everyone, everywhere, must contend with the climate they live in, and the risks that it poses.” I go on to say that the IRI works in places in the world where people are exceedingly susceptible to droughts, floods, fires, epidemics and other climate-related disasters. But I generally speak these words in pleasant settings — an auditorium, perhaps, or a lecture room — where the temperature is comfortable, the air is clean, the power stays on, the bandwidth is high.
It isn’t until I travel to a place like Niger, in the heart of the Sahel, at the height of the dry season, that I experience the real meaning of my own words. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy there is 54 years, and it has an infant mortality rate higher than any other country except Afghanistan.
Niger is also, undoubtedly, extremely climate vulnerable. The livelihoods of four out of five people in Niger depend on rainfed agriculture. In other words, crops get their water only when it rains, which isn’t a given in this part of the world. The Sahel has one rainy season, from June to October, and the amount of precipitation can vary considerably from one year to the next. In some years, the start of the rainy season comes weeks later than normal. Sometimes the rainfall is bunched at the beginning of the season or at its end. Sometimes most of it falls during the middle months. All this causes undue hardships on farming communities already living in poverty. Last year, for example, the rainy season in Niger and its neighboring countries was both shorter and weaker than normal, and crops suffered as a result. So right now, an estimated 18 million people in the Sahel are at risk of going hungry and becoming malnourished.
Under these circumstances, I accompanied IRI scientists Andrew Robertson and Alessandra Giannini to the Centre Regional de Formation et d’Application en Agrométéorologie et Hydrologie Opérationnelle, or Agrhymet for short, based in Niamey, Niger. Robertson and Giannini took part in a regional workshop focused on the predictability and variability of the West African rainy season. Staff from the national meteorological and hydrological services of nearly a dozen countries across the region attended the three-week workshop, sponsored by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, the United States Agency for International Development, the African Development Bank and others. The participants received training on the latest methods and tools for generating more accurate seasonal forecasts for farmers, water-resource managers and other users in their home countries. They also learned how to tease more information about rainfall characteristics out of a forecast.
“If you ask the farmers what they want to know about the upcoming season, it isn’t necessarily the amount of rainfall that will fall over the the entire season, but rather when it’s likely to start,” says Robertson. “The onset of the rainy season, which happens usually sometime in June, is a critical time for farmers because that’s when they plant their crops.”
Robertson says that the ability to predict seasonal changes in rainfall and temperatures, if effectively applied, could be one of the best adaptation strategies to climate variability and climate change in the Sahel and across sub-Saharan Africa. Mali, for example, has led the way in providing weather and climate information services to farmers in some rural communities, with positive results.
Read more about this over at the CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security blog, and while you’re there, be sure to follow its coverage of the Rio+20 conference.
The photos included here offer a visual recap of the trip, with an introduction to Sahel and the climate issues that confront it, as well as more details on the workshop and its participants. To see a version with video interviews, visit this visual essay
Follow @climatesociety and @fiondella on Twitter to get additional updates on the Sahel in the coming weeks.
r e c o m m e n d e d r e a d i n g
In Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, author James Workman tells the story of the Kalahari Bushmen’s struggle to stay on their homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana and the Botswana government’s efforts to drive them from those lands. Workman focuses on the role of water in that struggle, starting with the government’s 2002 decision to turn off the reserve’s water supply. This controversial action forced Bushmen to choose either resettlement in government camps outside the reserve or life on the reserve with no reliable supply of water. Even in the face of drought, part of the Tribe chose to remain on the reserve. This book tells their story and argues that their methods for survival should inform water policy in the coming age of what Workman calls “permanent drought”. For tens of thousands of years, the Bushmen and their ancestors lived in what local languages translate as “the Always Dry” or the “the Great Thirstland,” better known as the Kalahari Desert. The tribe once thrived across Southern Africa but perished as development and disease were brought to the African continent over time. As the Bushmen tribes continued to disappear, the British colonial government established the reserve in 1961 “for traditional land use by hunter-gatherer communities of the Central Kgalagardi where the last surviving bands could develop on their own terms, free from relentless persecution to near extinction.” Numbering about a thousand people at the time, the remaining band established itself in autonomous communities inside the reserve. Years later, for reasons explained in detail in Heart of Dryness, the Government of Botswana decided that the Bushmen were no longer welcome on the Reserve. Instead, the lands and limited water would be devoted to more “progressive” uses, such as diamond mining and tourism. A programme of “voluntary” government resettlement began, but the Bushmen did not give up their homeland easily. Eventually, the conflict led to Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought the water shutoff in 2002 and later to a case before the Botswana High Court. The book offers a surprisingly personal and often touching account of the Bushmen’s struggles. An American journalist turned water policy expert, Workman was drawn to the Bushmen’s story while living in Africa, where he worked on the World Commission on Dams Report and other water-related issues. He went into the Reserve several times, learning firsthand the story of the Bushmen and their fight to stay at home and to preserve their culture and ways on the land the government had promised them. Witnessing how the Bushmen’s lives, customs, and traditions were built largely around conservation and use of water, Workman “began to absorb the larger context and deeper meaning” of the story from a water policy perspective: “By managing to cope without government water while drought crippled the surrounding state,” Workman writes, “the dissident Bushmen revealed the inherent fallacy of centralised water control. … In the face of scarcity all water, like all politics, becomes emphatically local.” From that realisation, Heart of Dryness uses the Bushmen story as a launching pad to discuss many of the most contentious issues in water policy today, from privatization of water supplies and delivery systems to water as a human right. Focusing primarily on water management in the United States, the book also emphasises that, as we struggle to manage decreasing water supplies in the face of global warming and increasing demand, there is much that modern water managers should learn from the Bushmen. Further, Workman warns, a water crisis is looming – the “time of permanent drought” referenced in the title of the book. Permanent drought is defined in the book as follows: Set against the background equilibrium patterns of previous decades or centuries, measurable drought occurs whenever mean temperatures escalate hotter, water tables sink deeper, evaporation rates accelerate faster, runoff shrinks lower, reservoirs vanish sooner, dry seasons last longer, or economic thirst of more people Photo: Håkan Tropp, SIWI 21 demands more water from re activity than ever before. Of course, nothing prevents all these unpleasant forces from compounding at once, and the consensus of scientists suggests that in the United States we are now entering precisely that convergence. This scenario is known as a perfect, perpetual, or permanent drought. It means that in spite of unprecedented prosperity and freedom in most other sectors, and in spite of the undeniable convenience of cheap running taps and usd 8 billion worth of bottled water on supermarket shelves, Americans enjoy less absolute access to water than ever before. So, while the United States managed its highly technical water systems into a system of profligate waste, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, says Heart of Dryness, managed to “get it exactly right.” What are typically viewed as sacrifices or extreme conservation measures outside the Reserve are a way of life for the Bushmen. Bushmen practices could inform effective, modern water use methods and conservation. As outlined in the book these include, among other things: using less water, treating water as a precious necessity, cultivating arid-adapted indigenous plants, recycling gray water, and converting to low- or no-flush toilets. Of course, there is no easy ending, either for the Bushmen or for future water policy makers. Eventually, the Bushmen brought their case before Botswana’s High Court, seeking justice in a courtroom when none could be found in the desert. Even those who know the outcome of the Court’s decision will find a page-turner within Heart of Dryness, as it builds the case and describes the courtroom saga leading up to the long-awaited decision, which was issued in 2006. As for the policymakers, the book’s final chapter offers a proposed approach to a solution and hope for the future. “If our competitive demand for scarce water drives us apart and escalates tensions,” Workman writes, “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. And [the Bushmen] band demonstrated how to embrace that reality. [Their] fundamental rule of adaptation was not to organise and mobilize physical resources to meet expanding human wants, but rather to organise human behaviour and society around constraints imposed by diminishing physical resources. To reiterate this book’s theses: We don’t govern water; water governs us.” Megan Walline, Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Researcher, SIWI About James Workman James G. Workman began his career as a journalist in Washington, D.C., for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, Utne Reader, Orion, and other publications. He helped edit and launch the report of the World Commission on Dams, and spent two years filing monthly dispatches on water scarcity in Africa, work which formed the basis of a National Public Radio show and documentary. Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought ISBN: 9780802715586 Published: Walker & Company, 08/01/2009 Pages: 323 Photo: James Workman Photo: James Workman Wild tsama melons are gathered into a secure Kalahari equivalent of a water tower. For tens of thousands of years, the Bushmen and their ancestors lived in what local languages translate as “the Always Dry” or the “the Great Thirstland,” better known as the Kalahari Desert