The remarkable efficiency of chemical reactions is the result of biological evolution, often involving confined water. Meanwhile, developments of bio-inspired systems, which exploit the potential of such water, have been so far rather complex and cumbersome. Here we show that surface-confined water, inherently present in widely abundant and renewable cellulosic fibres can be utilised as nanomedium to endow a singular chemical reactivity. Compared to surface acetylation in the dry state, confined water increases the reaction rate and efficiency by 8 times and 30%, respectively. Moreover, confined water enables control over chemical accessibility of selected hydroxyl groups through the extent of hydration, allowing regioselective reactions, a major challenge in cellulose modification. The reactions mediated by surface-confined water are sustainable and largely outperform those occurring in organic solvents in terms of efficiency and environmental compatibility. Our results demonstrate the unexploited potential of water bound to cellulosic nanostructures in surface esterifications, which can be extended to a wide range of other nanoporous polymeric structures and reactions.