This article explores the role of large-scale water infrastructure in the formation of states in sub-Saharan Africa. We examine this through a focus on government agents and their shifting hydro-developmental visions of the state in colonial and post-colonial Mozambique. Over time, the focus, underlying principles and goals of the hydraulic mission shifted, triggered by contextual factors and historical developments within and outside the country. We identify the making of three hydraulic paradigms, fostering different imaginaries of ‘the state’ and social and spatial engineering of the territory: the ‘Estado Novo’ (1930–1974), the socialist post-independence state-space (1974–1987) and the neoliberal state (1987–present). We then conclude by discussing how the shifting discursive justifications for infrastructure projects consolidate different state projects and link these to material re-patterning of hydrosocial territories. Whilst promoted as a rupture with the past, emerging projects tend to reaffirm, rather than redistribute, power and water within the country.