Water challenges and solutions

H2Ownership: Ancient, Equitable Traditions of Efficient Water Resource Trading in Desert Cultures

Who or what should own water? The question is at once simple and complex and emphatically important for the valuation and management of increasingly water resources. In most of the world, monopolies determine price, leading to conflict and waste. But three case studies of desert cultures show that where individuals own and exchange equitable shares of water, civilization can thrive in the driest of landscapes. Part of our Trading Water series.

Trading Water

This article is one of a three part series on water trading. Never mind the stale public vs. private water services debate. Moving beyond the era of natural monopolies, here's a hard look at the more vital past, present and future (or culture, economics and politics) of individually tradable rights to water. See also:
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Gathering as Qoroxloo taught them

T. Boone Pickens may be best known as an 82-year-old Texas oilman, but these days he’s abandoned fossil fuels for an irreplaceable liquid asset that’s potentially even more profitable. As millions of rivals drive up demand for vanishing supplies of finite water, Pickens plans to cash in.

To do so, he has quietly invested $100 million to buy up rights to billions of gallons of water—more than any individual on earth—which he will sell it off to the highest bidder under the timeless law of supply and demand. “There are people” he explained to Business Week, “who will buy the water when they need it. And the people who have the water want to sell it. That's the blood, guts, and feathers of the thing.”

Few ideas generate more ferocious reactions than owning water and selling it for private gain. On the right of the political spectrum, the idea of trading water as a commodity seems obvious; to those on the left, odious.

So when it comes to water, is Pickens a sinner or a saint?

Where you stand on this question depends on where you sit. Today 99.99 percent of humanity sits locked on the outside of the potential bonanza, forced to rent water from a utility or district monopoly. The only insiders are billionaire buyers like T. Boone, or potential sellers like Western farmers and ranchers, who inherited the wet stuff from their ancestors, who in turn rented politicians to give title to water rights stolen from Native Americans.

No doubt, those indigenous people valued renewable resources differently. For millennia it was said they shared animals, fire, trees, land or water in a sustainable form of green communism. They lacked desire or need for informal market exchanges. When representatives from the Great White Chief came to buy out tribal lands, Chief Seattle mocked the very notion in one of the most evocative statements of indigenous beliefs. “This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water,” he explained. “Each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father. They quench our thirst.” Indeed, Chief Seattle concluded, “if we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

That’s an excellent question, but it turns out he never asked it. The entire “web of life” speech was concocted in 1972 by a Hollywood screenwriter. So how do poor and powerless indigenous people, unburdened by a culture of crass material consumerism in our post-industrial age—relate to scarce and precious resources? The question matters. Either human nature is inclined to share water altruistically in an egalitarian society, or we define water under individual ‘ownership’ and trade it efficiently to improve our lives.

Perhaps there can be no definitive conclusion. But I began my own search for answers in several inhabited desert landscapes, starting in the southern African Karoo.


Just outside of Lutzville, near the brackish mouth of the anemic Olifants River, is an outwardly normal farm. Only by closing in among the vegetables and grapevines beneath the hot sky and scouring winds do you notice something unusual. Here every worker I met seemed an obsessive-compulsive, industrious workaholic machine. To grasp what possessed them, a slice of history shows why this microcosm is extraordinary.

"It was the first and only farm in southern Africa where workers and managers were glued together by a new political adhesive force, water."

Apartheid South Africa had enshrined in law what had long been understood. In this arid land the white minority controlled 87 percent of all water—for their mines, their farms, their cities and their swimming pools—and in the process controlled the nation’s destiny. When Mandela came to power, the current changed course. Private property remained inviolate, but the water that gave anything value was now in the hands of the black majority, to be allocated under the new regime to benefit the previously disadvantaged (read: nonwhites). 

Enter a fifth-generation Afrikaner farmer, Truter Lutz. For years Lutz had been coveting the shallow Olifants River, hoping to pump its ‘surplus winter’ (seasonally swollen volume of) water up into a private 100-hectare off-stream farm storage dam.. Access to that water might transform dirt worth $30 a hectare into $500 per hectare, instantly adding $100,000 to a farm. He thought the saline soil good for grapes; and grapes need water. In the past, the apartheid regime might have complied with his request. But since 1990, the government had denied him a single drop.

Lily-white Lutz couldn’t change his color, or the law. But he had a knack for organizational management, for irrigation farming, for cropping patterns. His white partner, mining-civil-engineer Jan Louw, had a knack for designing and building dams and irrigation infrastructure to control, store and pump water. And the area’s unskilled, uneducated labor force had a knack for, well, for having skin pigment and a persecuted past. If they secured title to the surplus flows, they could bring to the table their shares of the most precious equity of all: water.

The government gave a green light, and negotiations began.

The resulting “shared-equity scheme” farm soon became one of a handful of farms in Africa co-owned by both blacks and whites. Here, worker-owners grew food not for local subsistence, but for commercial export and profit. The venture began to appreciate in value in a fiercely competitive market even as other large farms (white and black) were failing. It was the first and only farm in southern Africa where workers and managers were glued together by a new political adhesive force, water.

To make the most out of every drop they owned, the worker/shareholders patrolled the system, plugging leaks and eliminating waste. In an arid land, skin color and competition for water could violently split people apart. In the Rainbow Nation, tradable shares of water voluntarily forged a post-racial and highly productive tribe of indigenous South Africans, bound together by ownership of water.


They weren’t the first such arid land farmers. In the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, Oman’s farmers didn’t have much of a “winter surplus” of any rivers to draw on. Yet for 4,500 years that desert society has developed a irrigation system of tradable water rights, known as Aflaj.

Under Aflaj, farmers and homes both depend on gravity-fed flows. The individuals are the joint owners, or water shareholders, of their village water works. Access is free for all for drinking, sanitation, hygiene and ceremonial purification at the local mosque.

Beyond that amount, water is privately owned and openly traded for commercial use. Its value is determined in shares: days, hours or minutes of rights to use for irrigation. No villager is excluded from a market for water rights, which can be bought and sold within the community. Contracted water rights can be partial or whole, leased or sold outright.

As in South Africa, water’s value changes depending on the people who own it, the crops that are planted and the season seeds are sown. At auctions, prices paid may range from $5 to $22 per cubic meter. Importantly, there are no outside investors or diversions; the exchange takes place and profits remain within the community.


Water from tubers
Bushman squeezing water from a tuber

Four millennia is a long time. Yet even Oman is not the oldest continuous society on earth. For that you’d have to go to the Central Kalahari Desert where indigenous people have been thriving in a landscape without irrigation, farming, rivers or standing water.

While Kalahari Bushmen called themselves Red People based on skin color, some outsiders saw them as the ur-Reds, or proto-Marxists. The Maoist International Movement, for example, cited Bushmen as walking proof that for a million years humans practiced “primitive communism.”

This wasn’t just wishful thinking on the part of social revolutionaries. Various scholars observed how Bushmen remained uncorrupted by currency; their system of production appeared to efficiently distribute goods and services from each according to her abilities to each according to his needs. What’s more, Bushmen held no written property title, instead fusing labor and capital through daily activities.

A closer look reveals important wrinkles in this interpretation. To be sure, purely altruistic sharing did take place among extended families, and each family included a vast and intricate network of relations by blood or marriage that was often difficult for the outsider to detect or delineate. Beyond that, people competed to possess important natural assets, like water. Water resource rivalry was intense and pervasive within Kalahari bands, especially in times of drought and scarcity. To reduce  potentially violent conflict, bands relieved tension through what could be described as informal market transactions.

Bands certainly recognized customary, personal or clan property rights, or ownership. While no one codified land rights on paper, everyone kept track of tenure. People knew which families belonged to which Kalahari hunting or gathering grounds for water-rich game or tsama melons, respectively, and these relations became part of an informal, reciprocal trade matrix. Marked spears or arrows traced a kill back to a hunter who could then determine how to divide and trade it for other goods or services. Not surprisingly, among the most precious defined and negotiated property rights were those that hinged on access to water.

Kalahari sip-wells had owners, based on those who first discovered and used them. Likewise, tenure of the pan at Metsiamenong, “Vulture Water,” had an unwritten title passed down through the ages to a matriarch named Qoroxloo. Whenever even a tiny puddle gathered in the small basin, she allowed families to rush in and grab it before any drops could evaporate, and these quantities then became the property of each household, as long as it was used primarily for drinking and cooking (bathing and washing were extravagances) and not wasted in ways that would diminish that precious liquid asset. Even plastic canteens or ostrich eggshell containers were marked by their owner so that others knew to whom that water belonged. In doing so they incurred an unspoken debt to be repaid; that quiet exchange brought efficiency of water use and held the group together.

Bushmen of the Kalahari

A band’s seemingly casual, yet in truth intricate and extensive trade and distribution network had internalized and accounted for the exchange value of water, whether delivered by government or not. Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner documented this extensive, semi-formal and proto-capitalist exchange network among Kalahari Bushmen as xaro. “Xaro was one of the most powerful bonds within the social fabric, because a partnership would last for life. The process would continue. Two people would think of each other with affection, and would prepare return gifts with pleasure, anticipating the good feelings.”

The Bushmen propensity to exchange property was self-regulated by defining the terms of individual and group territorial rights: who, how, when and where people could, for example, drink water. These social systems of mutual rights and responsibilities involved property rights, entailed reciprocity, extended credit and assumed debt. In short, not only did informal, subtle and highly complex markets exist for the vital exchange of water resource goods, services or information; they essentially formed the basis for risk reduction and a coping mechanism for survival.


These three examples of water ownership are far from exhaustive. I am no anthropologist or academic and each study is highly unscientific. Yet strung together across time and distance, the cases offer a compelling and instructive argument for how humans can live equitably and efficiently and nonviolently as water evaporates faster.

Each collaborative system of defined and tradable water ownership emerged in isolation and ignorance of the others. Each arose in a time and place where water resources were extremely scarce. Each showed a way to build cohesive relations around a resource that all too often breeds conflict and violence.

Within the Karoo, the Empty Quarter, and the Central Kalahari Desert, communities chose to truck, barter and exchange for water. They collaborated over the terms of trade at what price, and did so under their own terms and conditions. Rather than dismiss these people as marginalized, primitive and uneducated perhaps we can envy and emulate them. Indeed, perhaps all humans should earn the opportunity to own and exchange equitable shares in water, just as humans have done across the continents and the ages.

Keywords: owning water, trading water, bushmen, kalahari, farming, south africa, oil


The JHU Global Water Magazine encourages debate and discussion of our articles. We hope you take this opportunity to exchange views and information on water and post a comment. If you had a reaction to the article, came up with an idea, or have relevant experiences or information, we want to hear about it.

1 Comment on this article.


Thanks for this great article, a much needed exploration of how to cope with a thirsty, drying landscape. 

Most of the examples here are of small-scale agrarian communities or subsistence-level tribesmen. How do you envision water trading rights scaling to populous urban, periurban, and suburban communities?  If all people own water rights, how would we allocate shares?  To start with, surely an office worker would need a smaller share than a farmer.  How would you keep this system equitable and prevent consolidation of water resources?

Great work, keep up the stimulating thinking.

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James G. Workman

Contributing Magazine Author

James Workman is the author of the critically acclaimed book: Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought.

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