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Tonight: Author puts human face on climate change, water crisis

Book offers compelling narrative of survival, and hope for tackling future water scarcity challenges

Note: Menlo Park native James G. Workman reads from his book, "Heart of Dryness," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, at Kepler's bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. The event is free. Information: 324-4321.

By Renee Batti

His resume highlighted with service as a policy strategist and speech writer in the U.S Department of the Interior under Bruce Babbitt, and a two-year stint with the World Bank's World Commission on Dams, James G. Workman considered himself an international water expert well before he was 40.

But in 2002, the Menlo Park native had an encounter with a besieged community of people living in one of the world's most inhospitable places for human beings -- the Kalahari Desert in Botswana -- that caused him to wonder who the world's experts in water supply and conservation really were.

Back then, he was on a mission: the Botswana government had just launched a campaign to drive the Bushmen of the Kalahari off their ancestral land by destroying the pumps that provided them water and destroying their water reserves. Mr. Workman, who had worked for some time in Africa on water issues, wanted to help the defiant people who refused to leave their land.

He set out for the Kalahari, but two days into his journey, he was stranded in the desert when his Land Rover broke down -- not an encouraging way to begin his mission. It was an intensely anxiety-filled prelude, to say the least, but after help arrived and he was able to proceed to the community of remaining Bushmen, he found some of his early beliefs and assumptions about how the world should approach the challenges of water scarcity breaking down just as consequentially as his Land Rover did. Observing the Bushmen as they survived water deprivation unimaginable to most living in the Western world was "a big eye opener," Mr. Workman said during a recent interview.

"I had always thought that we in the cities know how to (approach the problem of water scarcity) right, and everyone else gets it wrong. But I saw that it was just the opposite," he said.

Humanizing an urgent problem

A graduate of Las Lomitas district schools and Menlo-Atherton High School, Mr. Workman (known as Jamie to family and friends) has just published a book that builds upon his experiences with the Kalahari Bushmen, as well as his own extensive knowledge of international water issues.

He will read from the book, "Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park.

"Heart of Dryness," despite its name, offers readers anything but dry details and parched prose. Written in a rich, lively style, the book combines a compelling narrative about the Bushmen and their determination to stay on their land by circumventing the cruel dictates of a diminished water supply, with an analysis of the lessons the rest of the world can learn as climate change and drought patterns make water scarcity an increasingly urgent challenge to human survival.

Author Eric Rosten, writing for Nature.com, writes: "The service Workman ultimately performs is to humanize climate change and integrate it with history, human rights, trade and international law."

The book, Mr. Workman notes, "is not all doom and gloom." Throughout the book, his descriptions and analysis of the Bushmen's approach to their seemingly hopeless challenge suggest that there can be hope. The final chapter of the book -- "What Would Bushmen Do?" -- sums up what might be done, and how our thinking must change, about the inevitable water scarcity that is already developing into a worldwide crisis.

Life-shaping realities

The son of Gil and Nancy Workman of Menlo Park, Jamie Workman, now 41, grew up with an acute awareness "of the biggest gas lines of the 1970s, and also of drought-time water shortages," he notes, recalling the days when bricks were added to his household's toilets to conserve water. These realities helped shape him, he adds, compelling him to direct his attentions as a young adult to environmental, especially water-related, issues.

After attending Oxford and Yale universities, earning a bachelor's degree in history, Mr. Workman was a journalism fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. His journalistic work has been published in The New Republic, the Washington Business Journal, Harper's, the Boston Herald, Foreign Service Magazine, and many other publications.

After working in the Department of Interior during the Clinton administration, he lived and worked for a number of years in Africa, a continent that has long fascinated him, he says. During his many years of work on water-related issues, he came to realize that "the control of water is not just an environmental issue, but also a political and power issue."

His admiration of the Bushmen stems in part from the way in which they challenged the politics and power play of the Botswana government's action to drive them from their land. But it also stems from their ability to adapt to their circumstances by reducing their demand for water. This, he says, can offer a model of survival for the rest of the world.

"We've hit the wall on water supply," he says. "Now, we need to figure out how we can reduce our demand."

In addition to working on a second book, Mr. Workman is involved in a new venture involving water conservation and supply, modeled on the energy cap-and-trade concept.

He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Vanessa Workman, and two daughters.

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