The need to assess major infrastructure performance under a changing climate is widely recognized yet rarely practiced, particularly in rapidly growing African economies. Here, we consider high-stakes investments across the water, energy, and food sectors for two major river basins in a climate transition zone in Africa. We integrate detailed interpretation of observed and modeled climate-system behavior with hydrological modeling and decision-relevant performance metrics. For the Rufiji River in Tanzania, projected risks for the mid-21st century are similar to those of the present day, but for the Lake Malawi-Shire River, future risk exceeds that experienced during the 20th century. In both basins a repeat of an early-20th century multi-year drought would challenge the viability of proposed infrastructure. A long view, which emphasizes past and future changes in variability, set within a broader context of climate-information interpretation and decision making, is crucial for screening the risk to infrastructure.