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Act IV: Governing water


I spent several years debating which institutions could help govern the problems presented by water security.

The crux of the issue had finally emerged.


Achieving water security required implementing initiatives across the entire economymobilising thousands of private sector actors, millions of farmers, and billions of dollars in infrastructure.


While the implementation of that enormous plan would be the consequence of a transformation, it could not be its driver. The technical view was the wrong one to take.


What was needed was a state, a sovereign that saw its role as governing such a transition, a hydraulic state. 

But that state needed a political philosophy to guide its actions, for it would be confronted with a myriad of values-laden trade-offs. Water moves, it shapes landscape, it does work. It quite simply touches anything that operates on the landscape, indiscriminately, whether it is a farmer or a biodiverse wetland. Water is the fundamental test for governance in the face of multiple competing objectives. And this translated into a singular difficulty in finding workable political solutions to water issues.

While I was leading TNC's water programs, I encountered at least two fundamental problems which went to the heart of governing water on the landscape in this complex way. The first was the management and use of watersheds. This was a thorny, complicated problem in settings where downstream water users were heavily dependent on the ecological conditions of a catchment.


What became clear is that solving the problem of multiple users in the catchment required some mechanism to govern the whole. TNC developed its first "Water Fund" in Latin American in the late nineties. Over the course of several years, we expanded the reach of that work to all regions of the organisation. 

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Sources, São Paulo, Brazil

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I sponsored a first report led by my colleagues Daniel Shemie and Rob McDonald, followed by a number of other reports expanding on the potential for ecosystem services payments to support watershed-wide governance mechanisms that would involve communities in managing their landscape. 


The program grew to over 30 water funds across the world, including one in Cape Town (recently featured in the documentary The Age of Nature.)

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When I first joined TNC I had just visited Australia with John Briscoe. Inspired by the experience of the Murray-Darling I was convinced water markets held part of the answer to security issues. I knew TNC was already a significant water rights holder in the western US and believed we ought to try and enter this space in Australia, as a test for a broader thesis. My colleague Brian Richter led the development of a report to estimate the potential for water trading across the world, called Water Share. Work with Brian and our Australia program eventually led to the first Murray-Darling Balanced Water Fund ,one of our first impact investments in water. 

These projects pointed to that fundamental reality once again: water problems are, fundamentally, governance problems. They are really problems about people and how they relate to each other. And in the modern world, the central institution designed to mediate those relationships is the state, the ultimate sovereign on the landscape over which water flows. A story of water must be, at least in part, a story of the state.

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