Botswana court gives Kalahari Bushmen water rights

An appeals court in Botswana ruled Thursday that indigenous dwellers in one of the driest parts of the world can now drill wells for water, overturning an earlier decision that denied them access.

The Botswana Court of Appeals said the Bushmen people were entitled to use a well already established on their traditional land in the Kalahari Game Reserve and allowed to excavate new ones. The court's decision reverses a July ruling that took away drilling rights from the Bushmen, also known as the Basarwa.

The government has argued that their presence in the reserve is not compatible with preserving wildlife, though new wells have been drilled for wildlife and luxury tourist lodges have been built in the disputed territory. Botswana's government also approved a $3 billion diamond mine at one of the Bushmen communities.

"I am happy with the judgment but not completely happy," resident and Basarwa activist Amohelang Segotsane said. "Government was supposed to give us water without going through the legal process."

Segotsane said they want to be treated as citizens and enjoy the same rights as others in Botswana.

Jeff Ramsay, a coordinator for the Botswana Government Communications and Information System, said the government would respect the appeals court decision.

"We are a nation that is governed by the rule of law and always have been. Of course we will respect the decision of the courts," he said.

In 2002, the Bushmen were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by the Botswana government after limited consultations. They took the government to court and in 2006, another court allowed the Bushmen to return to desert-like homelands.

Hundreds returned and their leaders protested that they were denied water to drive them away again.

Despite the lack of water some Bushmen have remained, surviving off rainwater and melons, and making arduous journeys by foot or donkey to fetch water from outside the reserve. They also have coordinated with other members of their families in the resettlement villages.

"This is a great victory for the Bushmen and also for Botswana as a whole," Stephen Corry, the director of activist group Survival International, said of the appeals court ruling. "We hope it will be embraced as such by the authorities and not be seen as just an obstacle to their attempts to get the Bushmen off their lands for diamond mining."