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Water access, sanitation, and security remain key foci of international aid and development. However, the increasing interconnectedness of hydrologic and social systems can cause water initiatives to have unexpected and cascading effects across geographic scales. This presents new challenges for geoscientists working in water development, as distant and complex socioeconomic and environmental relationships, or “telecouplings,” may significantly influence the outcomes and sustainability of development projects. We explore these emerging concepts through a case study in Ethiopia, which receives over half of its annual budget from foreign development assistance and is currently experiencing rapid population growth and environmental change. Using examples from the literature, we identify water development aid initiatives in rural and urban settings and at local and national scales. We then situate these within the telecoupling framework to reveal underlying social-hydrological relationships. Our results indicate that water development is linking Ethiopia’s hydrology with geographically distant communities and markets and creating new and often unexpected flows of people, material, and capital. These are resulting in cascading impacts and cross-scale feedbacks among urbanization, geopolitics, and the water-food-energy nexus in East Africa. We conclude with a discussion of the strengths, limitations, and potential of the telecoupling framework for geoscientists and development practitioners.

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