Act V: The story of water
Usha Rao-Monari, me, and John Briscoe at his award ceremony in Stockholm
John had been ill for some time. I last saw him in 2014 at Stockholm Water Week, where the King of Sweden presented him with that year's Water Prize. Just two months later, I had invited him to come and open our first Global Water Summit at The Nature Conservancy. He left us the day before.
I decided then that I would try and find ways of telling fragments of the story of water that I had learned from John, to tell a story not just of water, but of water and people. To engage on the water challenges of societies was not just a matter of technical competence, but of historical and political understanding. Politics is where people author their life, tell stories about themselves and how they fit in a community.
The word—the story—was going to have to be part of the solution to the urgent water problems of society.
Geoff Rochester, Dave Allen, Eric Valli, Michael Redford discuss filming water
At the Global Water Summit I invited three film-makers who had had experience of telling water stories. I had grown up watching nature documentary. If there was a way of reaching millions, film would be it.
Three talented film makers joined us. Eric Valli had filmed the Yangtze river for a feature film. Michael Redford had filmed the Colorado. The third was Dave Allen of Passion Pictures. Dave had filmed several water stories as part of the series Earth: The New Wild for NatGeo and PBS. That conversation was unexpected. Dave in particular seemed adamant that telling a story of water was an almost impossible task. It is all the more surprising then that the conversation that began on that stage would eventually lead Dave to produce a three part series on water, one to which I happily contributed.
The series H2O: The Molecule that Made Us aired on PBS in the United States in April 2020. Narrated by NPR's Kelly McEvers, it told the story of water in a way that has redefined what it means to produce natural history. Nick Brown, Alex Tate, Catherine Watling, and Dave Allen of Passion Pictures are the creative minds behind the series, as is John Bredar of GBH.
The series did a fantastic job. In the US alone millions of people watched it. But the fully story had not been told yet.
My journey with water, which had started a decade earlier, had taken me from a scientific, managerial view of water to one that recognised the crucial role that human institutions play in defining both the problem and the solution. The story of water was not a scientific or engineering story. It was a political one: a story of ideas, of how institutions evolved over time. In framing water issues as environmental or developmental we had become blind to the relationship between society's development and the power that this substance exercised over the landscape we inhabit.
Water as the principal driver of weather and climate phenomena does work on the landscape. People have had to organise in order to exercise sufficient force to balance water's impacts. The story of water is, therefore, the story of how societies organised since they first started to deal with a moving environment. That was the full story that needed telling. That is the story that I set out to tell.
At the end of 2017 I began putting order on the notes that I had written over several years, during the many experiences I had had in water. The task was to take my direct experience of the state of water resources at the beginning of the twenty-first century and extract the historical narrative which could help explain what was happening. Months of historical research followed. Evenings, mornings, weekends.
Two years of work later, and lots of patience from my partner and my colleagues, I finished my book Water: A Biography in 2020. The book places the relationship between water and society into a long, historical perspective. The result of my decadal journey into water led me to the surprising conclusion that, in the end, the issue of water security is inextricably linked to higher order political questions on the very constitutional architecture of society. To read the story I wrote, order the book now!