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Act III: Rediscovering landscape

Geopolitics and state sovereignty, more than economics, seemed to drive water security. At the end of 2012, Mark Tercek, then CEO of The Nature Conservancy, approached me to join the organisation and lead its water programs. I called up John Briscoe and asked for his advice. John had a singularly dim view of NGOs: they often were single issue organisations, accountable to no one, pursuing the interests of their funders more than the interests of those who lived where they operated—he used to say. However, in his last posting as country director of Brazil at the World Bank he had dealt with staff from TNC's local program. He had been impressed with their practical orientation and empathy for the developmental state. He advised me to accept.

On the Verde River

One of my first board meetings at The Nature Conservancy. 

I took John's advice, left my position as a partner of McKinsey & Company, and joined The Nature Conservancy in February 2013. 


The aim of the organisation was to integrate ecosystems in the planning of water security infrastructure. But this multiplied the governance issues that decision makers faced.


First because it required an integrated view not just of the uses of water, but of the entire landscape. Second because it revealed in all its complexity the range of values and concerns that would have to be reflected in a politically viable solution to water security. 

Three Gorges Dam on my first visit in 2013

I was fresh from experiences in Africa, both Ethiopia and South Africa, and had seen a proliferation of Chinese investment. It was clear to me that while most of the western world had seen a peak in hydropower in the 1960s, the African continent, which had developed less than 3% of its resource, was likely going to see a proliferation of hydropower, driven by both investment from the east and the push for renewable energy and water storage.

For developing countries, Three Gorges Dam was the new developmental archetype. Just like Hoover Dam had represented a milestone in western economic and water development in the late 1920s, so did Three Gorges Dam represent a pinnacle of Chinese engineering that the rest of the developing world sought to emulate.

As it turns out, we had a front seat to these developments. David Harrison—the founder of the water program at TNC, and a water lawyer by trade but an avid conservationist at heart—had approached the International Hydropower Association in the hopes of helping them develop a sustainability protocol for hydropower. The mantra was that if a dam had to be built, it ought to be the right one, and done right.

This was a milder position than the traditional environmentalist one, and it allowed us to engage with some key players in the sector, including Three Gorges Dam, which would have otherwise been suspicious of our motives. The approach worked in part: thanks to David's work and that of TNC's China office we had been able to help TGDC change its rules of operation so as to release water in the lower Yangtze to sustain the sturgeon population, a key ecological objective. But it also exposed us to the difficult realities of competing developmental and environmental objectives.

On the Penobscot

Taking down the Veazie dam on the Penobscot River

We tried to overcome these. An important location for TNC's hydropower work had been the Penobscot River, where TNC worked with local utilities, local partners,  and the Penobscot Nation to reconfigure the river. We worked on the decommissioning of old dams, in order to reconnect hundreds of miles of river to the sea while ensuring the river could produce the same amount of hydropower as before.

This experience—that the development of rivers could be pursued in an optimised fashion for both nature and people—became the basis for much of our work on hydropower, led by my colleagues David Harrison, Jeff Opperman, and Jon Higgins. But no matter how sound the science, the optimised solution was rarely politically viable.

power of rivers.png

Our report The Power of Rivers was our first attempt at sizing the opportunity for optimised hydropower siting. It gave us a sense of the potential for this work: over a hundred thousand kilometres of free flowing rivers while producing the same amount of hydropower.


But it was in our second report, The Power of Rivers: A Business Case, that we contemplated both the real economics and the total universe of choices that decision makers faced, balancing different uses for the river. This work was developed in collaboration with a number of academic partners and one of the most interesting applications of this approach was in Myanmar. 

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