“Human nature is like water,” the US poet Wallace Stevens wrote. “It takes the shape of its container.” As the political events of 2016 continue to raise questions about that shape and how it is changing, it might seem difficult to redirect attention to water. So delegates gathering in Rabat, Morocco, next month for the eighth meeting of the Water Governance Initiative, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), deserve acknowledgement at the very least. At the meeting, which falls in the week before the next US president is sworn into office, those hardy souls are set to discuss “raising the profile of water governance in the Global Agenda”.

Yet the importance of water governance, if not its political profile, increases steadily year on year. And the politics of water — for that is what its governance involves — could yet hold a lesson for more-solid human affairs. Even the definition of water governance is political, and a hard-won human compromise, so it can seem a bit, well, fluid: the social, economic and political systems that control decision-making on water-resource development and management.

Its goal is surely one that all can agree on: to make sure that people do not have too much water, nor too little, and that it’s not too polluted. But the ways of achieving that across the globe mirror the governance of water turned into snowflakes: no two circumstances are identical.

A 2013 study, for instance, reported on the introduction of sustainable practices to maintain water flow in the local environment (rather than piping it away for human use) at river basins in China and Australia (R. Q. Grafton et al. Nature Clim. Change 3, 315–321; 2013). Whereas changes to China’s Yellow River were imposed by the central Communist government, improvements in the Murray–Darling River basin were the product of a market-based system that encouraged the trading (and non-use) of extraction permits.

Those are the (limited) success stories. But the harsher reality of politics frequently pours into water governance. And as a microcosm of the wider world, different attempts to manage water resources often serve only to make other options seem more attractive. Perhaps more than for any other natural resource, the various groups in society can see something different reflected back when they look at water. It’s a source of life, hygiene, crops, leisure, industry, livelihood — or just a pretty view — and those interpretations often collide. It’s easy to see why scholars of water governance typically prefer to focus on the actors rather than on the actions that are needed.

That’s another reason why the Morocco conference next month should be recognized. It is the latest in a long process that aims to guide policies of water governance. Run under the umbrella of the OECD, the Water Governance Initiative works to set principles and share good practice. It aims, for example, to increase the number of river basins that are assessed and given management plans, and to encourage countries to identify and crack down on corruption in the water business.

Many lakes and rivers have disappeared in our own lifetimes.

It is making progress. Last year, the initiative agreed on a dozen principles to guide water governance, and is now consulting on suitable indicators that could be used to measure progress. Scientists can do their bit here: one of the key principles is the need for policy-relevant and timely data and information on water use and resources. Indeed, some such information appears in a Nature research paper published online this week (J.-F.Pekeletal.Naturehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature20584;2016) that offers the most comprehensive picture yet of the planet’s water resource. The study collects and collates more than 3 million satellite images of Earth’s surface taken over the past three decades, and shows how surface water — rivers, lakes and wetlands — has ebbed and flowed. If there is, or was until recently, a pool of open water at least 30 square metres near you, then it’s probably included in this map. The pictures reveal some big numbers: nearly 4.5 million square kilometres of the planet’s land surface has been under water at some point since 1984 (still just 3%). More than half of this is in the global north, above a latitude of 44° N.

Although we think of lakes and rivers as features of the landscape, many have disappeared in our own lifetimes. More than 90,000 km2 of water bodies thought to be permanent have disappeared — including giant chunks of the Aral Sea — and a further 72,000 km2 is now classed as only seasonally flooded. But overall, there has been more flow onto the land than away from it: almost 213,000 km2 of land that was dry in 1984 is now covered in water for some periods, often inside new reservoirs.

Climate change has a role in these shifts, but the biggest cause of water movement is direct human activity. Some regions have too much, others too little. Water governance deserves its place on the global agenda before it’s too late.