African Bushmen fighting for their water rights

The Bushmen of Botswana have lodged an appeal against a High Court decision that denied them access to water on their ancestral lands.

In July, Justice Walia dismissed the Bushmen’s application for permission to use a well on their lands inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, expressing sympathy for the government’s position that ‘having chosen to settle at an uncomfortably distant location, [the Bushmen] have brought upon themselves any discomfort they may endure.’

The ruling came a week before the UN formally recognized water as a fundamental human right. It has also been condemned by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Africa’s key human rights body, for denying the ‘right to life’ enshrined in the African Charter.

In 2002, the Bushmen were evicted from their lands by the Botswana government; a move declared by the High Court as illegal and unconstitutional. However, despite the ruling, the government continues to prevent Bushmen from returning home by banning them from accessing a well which they rely on for water. Without it, they are forced to make arduous journeys to fetch water from outside their reserve.

The Bushmen launched legal proceedings in a bid to gain access to the well, which the government sealed and capped during the 2002 evictions. Even though the Bushmen have said they will raise the funds required to operate the well, the government claims that they need permission to do so and has refused to give it.

Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, has described the Bushmen’s way of life as ‘an archaic fantasy’.

Bushman spokesman, Jumanda Gakelebone, said, ‘Like all human beings, we can’t live without water. We, the Bushmen, are appealing for our basic human right, and the world is watching’.

Hundreds of Bushmen have languished in resettlement camps outside the reserve where they were dumped by the government, too afraid to return to their lands without access to a regular supply of water in one of the driest regions in the world.

The government’s treatment of the Bushmen has attracted international condemnation, with the UN’s top official on indigenous peoples stating that it falls short of the ‘relevant international human rights standards’. He also noted that Bushmen in the reserve face ‘harsh and dangerous conditions due to a lack of access to water’. The US State Department also criticized the government for its ‘continued narrow interpretation of the court ruling’.

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