Act II: Real world complications

John Briscoe was a friend. He always told us we lacked "dirt under our fingernails," his words. While I was working on the water cost curves, he was a professor of practice at Harvard University, but for many years he had been the lead water advisor at the World Bank, and had a felt experience for what we would only find out over time: the real-world conditions that decision makers face are the drivers of water security failures. Our cost curves did not capture the hidden costs of failing institutions. 

I spent the subsequent years attempting to implement the insights we had gained during the course of our research, working with ministerial teams in a number of countries.

The cost curve approach was imperfect, but it did have one important advantage: it provided a fact base that ministers of finance, of water, of agriculture could use to speak to each other. On that basis, it gave us the starting point for a strategic national approach to water security, so we were invited to a number of ministerial level conversations in several countries, including India, UAE, Brazil, South Africa, China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Mexico. 


I spent time working on Jordan, which faced some of the most unforgiving water conditions I had encountered. The state of Karnataka, India, was equally fascinating, facing modernisation  challenges in its agricultural sector (I wrote an article about some of those experiences here.) But while it was relatively easy to analyse the technical options available to decision makers, far less straightforward was illuminating the hidden political economy that governed their choices.

Meanwhile, water in particular had become a high-profile topic in the private sector. This article summarises some of our experiences working with a number of companies, from energy and mining to fast moving consumer goods companies and tech. But while companies could and should do a lot, the heart of the matter rested with the state.

Water issues resulted from a mismatch between expectations of society and the availability of water as provided by nature. The state was the underwriter of last resort when those mismatches could not be resolved. A story of water must be a story of the state.

This insight became particularly vivid in my time in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi wanted to accelerate the country's "growth and transformation," a centrally planned socialist economy. In the modernist tradition, water resource development was a key economic lever. It made sense on paper, but in practice it proved not so.

The challenges Ethiopia faced were daunting. There were plenty of competent economist and hydrologist, not to mention an extraordinary office of the International Water Management Institute. But what was missing was finance, infrastructure, an extension service that worked, and much more. Anyone arguing for simple development solutions needed only spend an afternoon in the office of a public servant in Ethiopia to realise just difficult operating conditions could get. 

Irrigation potential in Ethiopia, 2011.

Ethiopia was caught in a trap. To attract finance, Ethiopia needed to demonstrate economic production, and for the latter it needed the former. Half of the Ethiopian economy and virtually all employment was in agriculture. Irrigation was going to be crucial to that journey. I ran a diagnostic on the potential for irrigation across the country, which I worked on in collaboration with IWMI. The potential was enormous, but financing projects was far from trivial


A few private investments had happened—notably commercial rice farming owned by Saudi Arabian investors—but the private sector did not seem to be the answer. Ethiopia was positioning itself to become a regional hegemon. In 2011 the Arab Spring pushed Mubarak's regime in Egypt off the cliff. Ethiopia announced there and then the development on the Blue Nile of the Millennium Dam—now known as the Grand Renaissance Dam. Such a large water project required five billion dollars in finance, equivalent to a quarter of the country's GDP at the time. 

World Bank President Jim Kim and I discussing hydropower on a panel about energy development at the World Bank.

What these kinds of projects required were not economic investors, but political partners. 


It was in that context that I realised just how consequential the involvement of another international actor was going to be in the trajectory of the entire region. 


That International actor was, of course, China. The management of water resources wasn't just a national security or economic issue: it was a geopolitical problem.

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