How to find water in the desert – Kalahari bi bulb plant & more

Ju'Hoansi San bushman extracting water from a bi bulb (wild tuber)

Have you ever wondered how to find water in the desert? We often take water for granted. Yet, in a lot of regions worldwide, water is a scarce resource.

The Kalahari Desert is no exception. However, some tribes, like the Bushmen (or San) people, have found a genius way to adapt to the harsh environment.

Read on to learn more about how the bushmen of the Kalahari survive and find water in such an arid environment. The answer may surprise you!

Weather and Climate in the Kalahari Desert

Typical Kalahari landscape, South Africa

As you may have guessed, water resources in the Kalahari Desert are very limited, especially in the southern half of the desert.

The northern parts of the Kalahari receive over 20 inches of rainfall yearly, placing it outside of the traditional criteria to qualify as a desert.

The southern parts of the Kalahari, however, only receive around 5-10 inches of annual rain, making it much more barren and dry.

Despite the northern region of the desert receiving plenty of water, this area lacks surface water, as rain immediately drains through the sand.

As such, plants that grow here tend to be specifically adapted to survive in this environment.

Rain is generally limited to the summer months when thunderstorms bring in rainfall. During the colder seasons, the desert may see no rainfall for up to eight months.

Plantlife in the Kalahari Desert

Due to the lack of surface water and the limited rain in the Kalahari, very few plants are able to survive in the desert. Nevertheless, this desert is quite varied due to the difference in rainfall it receives.

Plant life in the southern areas is usually limited to drought-tolerant (xerophytic) shrubs and grass. The further north you go, you’ll encounter more greenery, including forests.

The northernmost parts are home to tall evergreen, palm trees, and the unique baobab tree.

Plants also thrive around the Okavango Delta in the north, where all sorts of water plants, like lilies and reeds, abound.

How the Kalahari Desert Bushmen Survive in the Desert

San bushman holding a wild tuber, probably a bi! bulb

The San were traditionally semi-nomadic people who would move around seasonally to find water, food, or more abundant hunting opportunities.

As they lived in such a dry landscape, they had to seek creative ways to find food and water.

The San have lived in the Kalahari for over 20 000 years, so they are very knowledgeable about the different types of indigenous plants and their myriad of incredible uses.

They have extensive wisdom about which plants have medicinal or nutritional properties. The San even know which plants are lethal, which they would use in hunting.

Here are a few plant species that the San people commonly use for their medicinal or healing properties:

  • Kalahari (or Hoodia) cactus – Used as an appetite suppressant.
  • Buchu (or Boegoe) plant – Used to treat urinary tract infections and aid in kidney issues.
  • Grapple plant (also known as devil’s claw) – Helps relieve stomach or digestion troubles.
  • Camphor bush – Smoked or consumed as a tea to aid stomach pain, respiratory troubles, or headaches.

One of the most important plants the San people discovered is the incredible root called the “bi! bulb”.

“Bi!,” in San language means “milk”, and the bi! bulb is often referred to as the milk root, as it produces a milky liquid.

How the Kalahari Bushmen Use the Bi! Bulb for Water

The bi! bulb is an amazing root plant that harbors water, which it absorbs from the sands around it. As you can see in this video, the San scrape or “grate” the bulb into a pulpy consistency.

The bushmen in the Kalahari Desert crush the pulp into their palms and squeeze it above their heads while holding their thumbs toward their mouths. This creates a path for the water to trickle down into their mouth.

Often, they will also rub the pulp to revitalize their skin. 

Once they’ve used enough of the bulb, the San bury it back into the ground to grow again. These bulbs are very valuable and rare, so the San ensure not to use up the entire plant so they can reuse it in the future.

How the Kalahari San People Store Water

The bi! bulb is not the only source of water in the Kalahari Desert. As mentioned, the northern parts of the Kalahari get enough rainfall and water, especially around the Okavango Delta.

Often, the San people would also follow animals, as they tend to know where to find nearby water sources like rivers and springs.

Wondering, “how did the San store water?” They regularly used the eggs of the common ostrich, which they would empty out through a small hole. The egg would also be enough to feed an entire family.

After cleaning the eggs, the San would collect water from available sources, even water puddles left in sandstone formations after rain. They would then seal the flask with beeswax and bury it in the ground along hunting routes.

The egg has a thick shell, which makes it a great option for keeping water insulated, clean, and safe.

During long hunting journeys, the people “in the know” could dig these “flasks” up to drink the clean water during the dry season. Often, the owners of the eggs would mark them with decorations. 

The San and Water Resources Today

San bushmen near a water source in the Kalahari desert

Unfortunately, the San Bushmen cannot follow the traditional lifestyle they used to enjoy.

European colonizers were responsible for brutal wars, genocide, forced labor, and land dispossession, which heavily disrupted their livelihoods.

Mining and privatized land has also forced the San people into areas where resources and free hunting is limited.

This has led to a lot of San people having to rely on government support, and many have lost touch with their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The Kalahari Desert tribes have had to fight for their right to water provision and the reclamation of land.

The San people of today often experience severe poverty, and much of their culture and identity are at risk of being lost due to modern absorption and assimilation.

Organizations like the Kalahari Peoples Fund aim to provide continuous support to San communities across Southern Africa.

They organize various initiatives, from supplying clean water and education, to village clean-ups and providing internet connection.

Other Interesting Facts About the San of the Kalahari Desert

Now that you know the genius ways in which the Kalahari Bushmen found and stored water in the desert, why not learn a few more captivating facts?

The San used ostrich eggs for more than water storage

San bushman buries an ostrich egg filled with water

The San did not only use ostrich eggs as water vessels. The women would commonly create beautiful jewelry and trinkets from broken egg shells, shaping the shells into uniform pieces.

Both the men and women would wear these carefully crafted jewelry items on their bodies and as headpieces.

The Kalahari Bushmen practice egalitarianism

While men and women have different roles within the tribe, both contribute to the food and well-being of the group. Therefore, they don’t value a certain gender or role above the other.

Instead, every tribe member has a say when it comes to decisions, and everyone shares resources equally. They place a big emphasis on maintaining harmony.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are not wasteful

Smiling San woman with a Tsamma melon on her head

The San people have a deep respect for and connection to nature. Because they have access to limited resources, they are careful not to waste or deplete what is available.

After hunting, for example, they will eat their catch, crack the bones to consume the marrow and tan the animal hides for blankets.

Similarly, they place the bi! bulb back in the earth to grow again, and use the ostrich egg in creative and genius ways — as you have come to learn. 

The San are some of the world’s best trackers and hunters

The San people hunt with poison arrowheads. They usually make this poison from certain lethal insects, animals, or plants.

The poison is very slow-acting, so animals will typically only die within a few hours or even days.

For this reason, the San have to track the animals long after striking them with the arrow. Luckily, they are some of the best trackers in the world.

With their extensive knowledge, they can tell the type of animal just from its track, and even determine whether the animal has an injury.

When the animal finally succumbs to the poison, the San people will cut out and discard the flesh hit by the poisonous arrow.

They also use other methods in hunting, like digging up pits and concealing them so an animal would fall into them. Often, they would place a sharp stake in the center of the hole to impale the animal as it falls in.

The San bushmen would also build traps for smaller creatures like hares and guinea fowl with plant fibers.

Would You Survive in the Kalahari Desert?

Ju'Hoansi San bushman demonstrating his hunting skills with a bow and arrow

Navigating the vast and arid landscapes of the Kalahari Desert can be a formidable challenge, particularly when it comes to finding water, a crucial resource for survival.

The San Bushmen have honed their knowledge and skills over centuries, relying on their deep connection with the land and their keen observation of natural indicators.

From reading animal behavior to tracking subtle signs in the terrain, their expertise in finding water is unparalleled.

Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself stranded in the Kalahari Desert. But, if you do, remember the genius ways in which the San have survived in the desert for centuries. Their knowledge may be life-saving.

If you’re curious about other indigenous communities, have a look at this guide on 11 different African tribes. You’ll also love these South African myths and legends.

1 thought on “How to find water in the desert – Kalahari bi bulb plant & more”

  1. waldirdesouzajunior

    The bi bulb plant is a very godsend gift of nature, I am impressed with this precious plant that survives into the desert. Its marvelous bulb provides us water, and makes it possible for people who cross the desert and are prepared, having enough knowledge about its existence and benefits.

    It makes life possible on very arid areas!

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