H2O: The Molecule That Made Us

Egypt segment, Episode 2. Courtesy of GBH

Courtesy of GBH

By 2013, I had worked for almost a decade at McKinsey, which prided itself in how secretive it was. But as I worked on water, I realised that different people held remarkably different stories about their experience with this substance. Some worried about drinking water and sanitation, a fundamental human right. Others about scarcity and spreading deserts, or about having enough water to grow food. Others still feared floods wreaking havoc.

 

It wasn't a single story of water. It was a cacophony of irreconcilable experiences. That was the starting point of story-telling journey that ultimately brought me to be part, in 2020, of a remarkable television series on water. 

Courtesy of GBH

Narratives are the foundation of healthy political debate. How to tell a story of water that most people could understand, and that could be the starting point for finding solutions together? 

 

At TNC, my colleague Sanjayan (who today leads Conservation International) had had extensive experience in documentary making. As soon as I joined, I spoke to him about the story of water. From there, I met Stella Cha, then creative director at the organisation, and an accomplished film-maker. She became my partner in crime. 

 

Seven years later, in April 2020, a three part series on water was on air on PBS. It has gone on to win several awards as best natural history series. 

Panel on story telling at our Global Water Summit in 2014. Dave Allen is the second from the left.

The first step was to find some film-makers willing to engage in the story of water. I organised a Global Water Summit for TNC in Chicago, and invited a number of notable producers to discuss the topic.

 

On stage we had Michael Redford, who had just done a film on the Colorado River, Eric Valli, who had filmed a feature on the Yangtze, and Dave Allen, the producer of Earth: The New Wild, a series that had featured Sanjayan, and which had also covered some water stories. 

It was on that stage that Dave Allen remarked that water was a hard topic to film because "It is so boring!" The fact that he chose to make that remark to an audience of 400 water professionals says something of Dave's remarkable flair. Deep down, he must have known that he would be the one who would bring the topic to screen a few years later.

The talented team on the shoot in Egypt: George Woodcock on camera, Gary Stadden on sound, and Alex Tate directing.

Several years of discussion and attempts at landing a commission followed. Then, Dave and his colleague Nick Brown were able to secure GBH's interest.

 

The story of water was difficult to tell visually. There were elements of it that were primarily scientific. How did water get on the planet? What role does it play in nature? How do animals and plants interact with it? Then there were questions that spoke more to the relationship of human societies and water: from antiquity to modernity, the central issue of water is one of institutions, how communities have found ways of addressing their problems in water, collectively. Interesting, but hard to film.

 

And then are water problems of today's world, from the deserts of the Middle East to the floodplains of the US midwest. That three part story ended up being the structure of the series across episodes.

I was one of the contributors. I was keen to contribute a piece on antiquity. I had begun writing my book, and felt that this was an important angle to cover in the story. 

 

It took about a week to film the segment in Egypt. We first went to Cairo, ten up to Aswan. I developed a new appreciation for those working in the industry, after seeing the amount of gear needed to film even the most basic scene.

The centrepiece of the story was the nilometer on Elephantine island, near the temple of Philae in Aswan. Both had actually been moved when the Aswan Dam had been constructed, so it's location does not correspond to where it was built in antiquity

On the train to Davos: Charlotte Lathane, Nick Brown and me. 

A couple of weeks after the Egypt shoot we went to Davos, Switzerland, to film a segment on the World Economic Forum. That segment unfortunately did not make it in the final cut of the series.

 

The point was to introduce the fact that the world of business had also awakened to the water crisis. I interviewed Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the former  Chairman of Nestlé and vice-chairman of the forum. Peter spoke eloquently of the challenges of water security. I also interviewed Dominic Waughray who had seen with me the mobilization of the private sector on this issue. 

Most of the time however was spent shooting my arrival to Davos, filming in a carriage of the train that connects Davos to Klosters and back. A whole day, back and forth, including a train breakdown. 

New York segment, Episode 3. Courtesy of GBH

The last segment I contributed was in the third episode.

 

The series builds up to make the case that there is a crisis. It closes on the idea that there are solutions to it.

 

In this segment, I talk to Serena Prabasi of WaterAid US to introduce the idea—also based on my experience with water funds at TNC—that an important answer to the water challenges of modernity lies in the integration of ecosystems in the functioning of water utilities.

Dave Allen and Nick Brown at Passion Pictures produced the most amazing three-part series for John Bredar at WGBH. Read a piece I wrote for the spring issue of The Nature Conservancy magazine, inspired by the series, called A Story Worth Telling, and watch me in episodes 2 and 3, as I visit Egypt and New York to explore our vulnerability and the role ecosystems play in our own water security. 

The series has gone on to win the NatGeo WILD series aware at Wildscreen and the Best Limited Series – Long Form Award at the Jackson Wild Film Festival, and in many ways redefine what natural history looks like.

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