Water oxidation is the key kinetic bottleneck of photoelectrochemical devices for fuel synthesis. Despite advances in the identification of intermediates, elucidating the catalytic mechanism of this multi-redox reaction on metal-oxide photoanodes remains a significant experimental and theoretical challenge. Here, we report an experimental analysis of water oxidation kinetics on four widely studied metal oxides, focusing particularly on haematite. We observe that haematite is able to access a reaction mechanism that is third order in surface-hole density, which is assigned to equilibration between three surface holes and M(OH)-O-M(OH) sites. This reaction exhibits low activation energy (E-a approximate to 60meV). Density functional theory is used to determine the energetics of charge accumulation and O-O bond formation on a model haematite (110) surface. The proposed mechanism shows parallels with the function of the oxygen evolving complex of photosystem II, and provides new insights into the mechanism of heterogeneous water oxidation on a metal oxide surface. The oxidation of water remains the kinetic bottleneck of solar-to-fuel synthesis. Now, spectroelectrochemical evidence together with density functional theory calculations show that charge accumulation determines the reaction mechanism on metal-oxide photoanodes. These insights reveal features that are common to the mechanisms of water oxidation carried out by other inorganic and biological systems.