Over the past five years, the Future Design and Assessment of Mega-Systems (FutureDAMS) project has sought to better understand water-energy-food-environment (WEFE) systems and work collaboratively with partners worldwide. Over 75% of new hydropower capacity is expected to come in the form of large-scale projects across Asia and Africa by 2030. FutureDAMS warns if these projects continue to be designed and built as individual assets, rather than taking a whole-systems approach, there is a high probability that many will repeat the mistakes of the past, fail to understand negative impacts and miss opportunities to achieve multiple sustainable development goals.

The project research focused on case studies across Asia and Africa in:

  • Ghana (the Volta river basin)
  • Ethiopia (the Nile basin)
  • Middle East (Tigris-Euphrates)
  • India
  • Myanmar (Irrawaddy & Salween) – activities were dramatically reduced here following a military coup in 2021.

Julien Harou, FutureDAMS’ Research Director said “this was a pretty exciting set of case studies”. In some instances though their scope had to change throughout the programme. In the Nile Basin researchers ended up moving away from the Nile River Basin, which is a smaller set of countries, to encompass all the countries of the Eastern African Power Pool. The team had to be flexible and adapted to the people that they worked with.

“Our partners were fantastic,” Harou said. “We had to find a different way of working with them on the case studies. In the Tigris-Euphrates work ended up being slightly different as it became more of an academic exercise because we were unable to find government partners due to conflicts in that region. Whereas Myanmar was a bit shocking in that we started out with institutional structures which then ceased to exist partway through the programme. So, it definitely was a lesson in change and evolution,” he added.

Over 200 stakeholder organisations were engaged as the FutureDAMS’ multi-disciplinary team of 70 researchers and capacity developers looked at the following six areas of scholarship:

  • Governance, political science, and development.
  • Economic analysis.
  • Climate, hydrology, and hydro-ecology.
  • Finance and climate change policy.
  • Systems engineering and decision-making under uncertainty.
  • Social impacts.

David Hulme, CEO of FutureDAMS, acknowledged that although the team continually strived for interdisciplinarity from the very beginning of the project, it is “very difficult to achieve”. Harou, admits that they “had some success” in linking all six areas together, but it was difficult.

“We wanted to link all six together into one big coherent approach to make recommendations on interventions,” Harou said. “By and large though I would say that we were successful in FutureDAMS.”

Pioneering software

FutureDAMS says that to further understanding of the nexus, and to build technical and institutional capabilities in partner countries, its engineers developed pioneering software. It created two fully functional, free-to-use online tools that are available at www.waterstrategy.org and www.nexus-strategy.org.

These technical modelling and simulation tools allow cross-sectoral implications and available choices to be analysed for the first time. waterstrategy.org is on an online platform for collaborative water management and planning, across multi-sector systems, which allows river basin models to be built. The sister site, nexus-strategy.org, is similar but also includes the power system. By simulating complex WEFE systems, models can be linked to multi-objective artificial intelligence design algorithms, which can help identify the synergies and trade-offs between different objectives. FutureDAMS says this can assist stakeholders in managing river systems, infrastructure and energy services and exploring strategies under multiple future scenarios.

Reflecting on FutureDAMS’ work, former Capacity Director Jamie Skinner said that it was “a very, very worthwhile process that has done a number of key things”.

“Most importantly for me,” Skinner, who was a senior adviser on the World Commission on Dams, went on to explain, “has been the capacity of our software teams to deliver on one of the big things that the world Commission on Dams asked for 20 years or so ago now, which is an opportunity to look fundamentally at different alternatives in the water and energy and planning system.”

Skinner said that previously projects would often just end up in the situation where a large water intervention, normally a dam, was very much seen as a “shall we build it or not build it?” choice. No other questions were asked such as “What are all the alternatives that we have?”, “What are our choices?”, and “Which one is the best amongst all these different options?”.

“I think that having the opportunity to ask questions will change the way in which planning is done if it is applied well across the different needs of different countries in different river basins. So, I think that in a sense the availability of a tool to do much more that a “shall we build, or shall we not build” choice, is absolutely critical for me,” he concluded.

Barnaby Dye is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in the UK. Throughout FutureDAMS he looked at politics, the political economy and the international relations involved with investments in dams and water management schemes. He says that the whole project has taught him about the politics of modelling.

As a political scientist Dye explained that “you find politics wherever you go”. He said that advances in computing have successfully filled the gaps that previously existed in being able to understand the complex technical relationships within WEFE systems. This is “quite powerful” but, he added, there are also complex political issues around access to data. This proved to be a challenge at various points in FutureDAMS as good models rely on being able to access good data: in many developing country contexts data are often “closely guarded secrets”.

“In the UK-European-American context there’s not so much fear of disclosure. There is this trust between the state and civil society,” he said, “but it’s quite different in developing country contexts where you don’t have that level of trust or where there’s a lot of tension and conflict between different countries. There are very strong reasons, and good rationales, for countries trying to keep their data very private.”

Dye said that this poses questions around global inequality and data reliability. Since the 1980s, and from an African perspective, austerity measures have had major repercussions on data collection, on government statistics departments and on academia more broadly. While there are also questions surrounding the politics of who controls the modelling process. Who determines what is measured and what values the computers produce? Dye thinks it can become a political project when deciding some of these factors and deciding the value judgements that go into the modelling.

He warns that perhaps everyone does not believe this process should be as inclusive and participatory as possible in order to achieve the best outcomes. There is a chance that such models and data can “be controlled by ruling elites and not used for the purposes of inclusive development”. In addition, they can also appear to “give a badge of approval and justification” to projects that may not have very just outcomes. Dye went on to advise that “there can be huge distortions if we are using data for our own modelling purposes”.

Although we appear to have potentially increased technical capacity to come up with better decisions, David Hulme adds that we may have “politically moved towards a much lower capacity to want to take advantage of technical analysis of the available science”.

“There have been technical and analytical advances and modelling is now much better as supercomputers are accessible, and one can begin to replicate some of the complexity of the systems that are looked at. However,” Hulme commented, “climate change has removed the old assumption that used to be logical. It was previously technically possible to assume that the next 50 years are going to be like the last 50 years of rainfall and temperature. Nowadays, it is no longer reasonable to assume that and so it is a great challenge for technical modelling.”

Building bridges

Judith Plummer-Braeckman, a Senior Research Associate at Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, spearheaded FutureDAMS’ work on finance. She said the key take aways from the finance section was how important it is to “make that bridge between academia and practice”.

“One of the first things we did was to write a guide to terminology which explained what financiers mean by certain terms, and I’ve been surprised by how valuable that piece has been,” Plummer-Braeckman admitted. “Although it just seemed like a building block to our research it has actually become one of our most downloaded bits of research.”

This part of FutureDAMS’ research also highlighted the importance of making sure there is “a really strong understanding” about how projects are created and financed.

“There’s an awful lot said about the way projects should be financed,” said Plummer-Braeckman. “And it is remarkable how many people have got very strong views on the ways they should be financed, but not quite such clear views on how they can be financed. Those two things proved to be quite a long distance apart.”

The other key deliverable was that the research team analysed risk from a financier’s point of view. This proved to be a successful approach which the World Bank has asked to pilot on one of their projects, with the aim of replicating it on each of their schemes to help assess risk and suitability for finance.

Plummer-Braeckman also spoke about an interesting development that she has seen in hydropower over the period of FutureDAMS. She said that the prevailing message maybe ten years ago was that “minimum damage projects”, which were probably run-of-river, were to be developed. However, there has been “a rapid realisation in the last five years” that storage has a huge role to play in providing balancing power for renewable energy. The importance of pumped storage has grown.

“I feel as though pumped storage is somewhat the kind of orphan child of the hydropower sector. It’s always mentioned as a sort of add-on, but it has now become absolutely crucial to the management of many grids around the world. It is almost as if pumped storage has come into its own,” she commented.

Acts of faith

As CEO, David Hulme took the chance to reflect on the work of FutureDAMS since its inception in 2018.

“My observation,” he said, “was that I used to think infrastructure and major investment decisions were quite difficult, but I now believe they are acts of faith. The future is so uncertain, and it is extremely difficult to try and work out what these major investments are actually going to contribute in the future.”

He went on to explain that this can be illustrated by the project’s work looking at case studies in India. Infrastructure was originally built by those who had no idea about the role dams could play in the future. What might have been seen as a low return investment in dams by the Indian colonial government at the time of construction, has eventually gone on to support the green revolution.

Hulme also discussed diversity within the industry.

“Once you move into these engineering and technical areas, you see how male dominated they remain,” he said. “We’ve been really trying over the whole period of FutureDAMS to move a little towards gender equality in presentations, in involvement and in publications. These fields are still very much male dominated, and we need to try to find ways of ensuring that more female contributors are interested in these topics and can develop academic or professional careers in the field.”


The most difficult thing about the work of FutureDAMS, Harou believes, was that “we were creating a product and an approach that doesn’t really have a client and that is always difficult”.

“There’s no ministry, utility or body who does and asks for WEFE expertise and analysis because no one, no single institution, except maybe finance ministries to central governments, acts across all those areas at the same time,” Harou explained. FutureDAMS has basically built an approach and toolset for a set of stakeholders “who don’t really exist yet”. But he is hopeful that things “will evolve so that there will be an agency for the future that does this kind of work”.

“If you build it,” Harou says, “they will come.” FutureDAMS’ legacy of a toolset and informative website are there ready and waiting for future clients to come and use them, empowering them to do their jobs.

“But will that client ever come to exist?” he asks. “Will anyone ever care about water-energy-food-environment systems? I don’t know. We’ll see. Maybe if they do, futuredams.org will have helped them out.”

Overview of lessons learned

Members of the various research teams that contributed to FutureDAMS’ work gave an overview of some of the lessons they have learned.

The energy team looked at integrated water-energy modelling and saw the additional value of interaction between the sectors.  The idea that you can look outside of your field opens up a lot of possibilities and new options that you can explore, explained Alejandro Cesena-Martinez, from the Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Manchester University in the UK.

He said his “perspective as an electrical engineer is that everything has to be solved with electricity, with power” but he began to realise there are considerations in other sectors. These include understanding the availability of water and the need to ask more questions such as can we get more water? Or can we do with less water if that allows us to get more in the future?

He also spoke about the problem of trying to integrate different models from different fields as they are all quite complex.

“Integrating these models is not an easy task,” Cesena-Martinez said. “Just understanding how these models work is not an easy task. There is the need to have this discussion between experts from different fields to understand how things work and because of the complexity, we need to have some trade-off between the level of accuracy that we want to have for each of these models, and the type of study that we want to do.”

He went on to explain that if doing an operational study, it is possible to take a lot of detail from each sector because these models will only be running a few times. However, if there is a heavy simulation based on optimisation, some trade-off regarding the level of accuracy will be required otherwise these models “would be running forever and we wouldn’t get meaningful information in time”.

“Overall, what we basically saw from the energy side was that there’s a lot of value in such interaction, but it is not easy to tackle,” Cesena-Martinez concluded. “There must be discussion between different stakeholders and trade-off between the levels of accuracy required. Hopefully the models set up by our teams will provide the foundation for people to start discussing trade-offs between different studies and models.”

Tim Foster is a Mechanical and Civil Engineer at the University of Manchester and specialises in food security. He worked with the agriculture-economics focused team. He said a lot of their work looked at dams which historically were more focused on design and selection with less focus, both in practice and research, on post-project evaluation and monitoring.

“Many of the agricultural components of dams simply never end up achieving what they set out to do,” he said. “The lesson going forward is the need for much greater focus on checking whether projects are actually delivering what they originally stated and if not, building lessons into future projects, setting more realistic expectations and thinking through why some of those issues of underperformance have arisen.”

Mohammed Basheer is from the Water Resources Group at the University at Manchester. He worked with University College London’s economics team, Newcastle University’s climate team and Southampton University’s hydrology team. Together they worked to connect engineering-based river system models with economy-wide models driven by some of latest climate data that propagates from the hydrology system into the river system.

Basheer and his colleagues are hopeful that this modelling framework can help with the evaluation of interventions in river systems and market economies. The Nile Basin became their laboratory for developing this framework as they carried out a lot of experiments there.

Some of the lessons they learnt include that with transboundary river basins, the transboundary nature adds “another layer of complexity” that needs to be taken into account. In addition, cooperation between countries is “always beneficial and can help widen the solution space and provide win-win solutions”.

“One thing that I learnt throughout FutureDAMS and it’s something that the project invested in quite a bit, is how to interact with stakeholders,” Basheer added. “From a modelling perspective we’ve been quite actively interacting with our partners in East Africa. In some cases, we had weekly meetings with them looking at technical aspects, understanding their demands and adapting our model development approaches to accommodate their demands. We also made sure they were part of the model development process so that it’s easier for them to adopt models later on after the project finishes.

“We’ll see over the next few years whether this approach was successful,” he said, “and if it will help stakeholders take these models forward and create some social value based on them.”