Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The centerpiece of Egypt’s ten-year development plan and a monument to President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s achievements, the Aswān High Dam controlled annual floods on the Nile River and prevented damage to the floodplain; it also provided approximately half of Egypt’s power supply and improved river navigation. These advantages came at a high cost in human relocation and environmental impacts, however.

Summary of Event

Located four miles south of the ancient Egyptian city of Aswān, the Saad al-ՙ Ālī, or Aswān High Dam, was the centerpiece of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ten-year economic development plan, launched in 1960. The plan was designed to industrialize and modernize predominantly agricultural Egypt, an impoverished country that in the 1950’s had only recently liberated itself from colonialism and the decadent monarchy of King Farouk. Engineering;dams Dams;Aswān High[Aswan High] Aswān High Dam[Aswan High Dam] [kw]Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam (Jan. 15, 1971) [kw]Egypt’s Aswān High Dam, Dedication of (Jan. 15, 1971) [kw]Aswān High Dam, Dedication of Egypt’s (Jan. 15, 1971) [kw]Dam, Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High (Jan. 15, 1971) Engineering;dams Dams;Aswān High[Aswan High] Aswān High Dam[Aswan High Dam] [g]Africa;Jan. 15, 1971: Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam[00180] [g]Middle East;Jan. 15, 1971: Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam[00180] [g]Egypt;Jan. 15, 1971: Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam[00180] [c]Engineering;Jan. 15, 1971: Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam[00180] [c]Energy;Jan. 15, 1971: Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam[00180] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 15, 1971: Dedication of Egypt’s Aswān High Dam[00180] Nasser, Gamal Abdel Eisenhower, Dwight D. Dulles, John Foster Sadat, Anwar el- Khrushchev, Nikita S. Eden, Anthony

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After Nasser, a former army colonel, became president in 1956, he sought to regain Egypt’s primacy in the Arab world, to create the United Arab Republic, and to implement a program of Arab socialism that involved land redistribution and social and economic reform. In addition to augmenting these goals, construction of the Aswān High Dam was also intended to stimulate Arab pride and to serve as a testament to Nasser’s achievements. Unveiled on January 15, 1971, on Nasser’s birthday, the dam’s dedicatory plaque thus cited Nasser, who had died only months before, as the “Immortal Leader,” as a champion of freedom and of Arab socialism. Nasser earlier had referred to the dam as “our new pyramid.”

Nasser’s expectations about the dam’s impact were grandiose. He predicted that, within ten years of its completion, the dam would pay for itself and that, within the same decade, it would increase Egypt’s national income by more than one-third. He believed that it would allow Egyptians to reclaim 1.3 million acres from desert, to convert another 700,000 acres to perennial irrigation, and to facilitate the harvest of two annual rice crops on still another 700,000 acres. He further anticipated that the dam’s hydroelectric plant would produce 10 billion kilowatts of electricity, sufficient to electrify the entire country, and that the huge lake that would emerge behind the dam would create a fishing industry with a haul of between 20,000 and 30,000 tons per year. Most important, the dam would regularize the Nile River’s flow, thereby making it predictable, and, by massively curtailing wastage, would ensure Egyptians an abundance of water.

Begun in 1960 and completed in 1970 at an initial cost of $1 billion, the Aswān High Dam was an immense undertaking; indeed, it was the largest dam of its kind. Built of earth and rock with a clay and cement core—using enough material to build seventeen large pyramids—it stands 375 feet high and is 11,811 feet long. Behind it, Lake Nasser, one of the world’s largest artificial lakes, covers more than 2,000 square miles and extends 300 miles to the south, forming a reservoir capable of holding 204 billion cubic yards of water. The lake’s creation necessitated the relocation of nearly eighty thousand people, mostly Nubians, to new homes. These people were promised new jobs in the citrus orchards or in the fishing industry that the dam was expected to generate. By subjecting the Nile River, which flowed through one-half the length of Africa, to unprecedented controls, the dam represented a national effort of heroic proportions.

Financing the dam and securing the technical assistance required, however, enmeshed Nasser’s Egypt more deeply in the competitive Cold War diplomacy waged between the United States and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and its bloc of allies and satellites on the other. Under Nasser, Egypt’s foreign policy was avowedly neutralist, aimed toward establishing a viable Third World coalition that kept it free of Cold War commitments either to the United States or to the Soviet Union. Although Nasser showed preference for receiving financial aid for the Aswān Dam from the United States and Great Britain, he also wanted to be free to procure arms and to solicit other aid from Soviet satellites such as Czechoslovakia and Poland or from the People’s Republic of China, then a Soviet ally.

In the mid-1950’s, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, in company with British prime minister Anthony Eden, agreed to contribute money toward financing the dam, with further assurances of technical assistance. Soviet Communist Party chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev simultaneously began making similar overtures to the Egyptians.

Aswān High Dam from space.

(NASA)

From Nasser’s viewpoint, the Anglo-American proposals, which the British and American governments refused to channel through the impartial World Bank, seemed to impugn Egypt’s independence as well as its neutralist foreign policy. When Nasser persisted in seeking arms from Soviet bloc countries, took the lead in recognizing the People’s Republic of China, and appeared to be negotiating for Soviet aid, the United States and Great Britain abruptly withdrew their proposals. Secretary Dulles, a hard-line anticommunist and antineutralist, was influential in this decision, as were U.S. lobbies of cotton growers and pro-Israeli groups. Nasser, outraged by the “odious” manner in which Eisenhower and Dulles had withdrawn U.S. proposals and by what he regarded as gratuitous comments about the Egyptian economy by U.S. officials, immediately negotiated financing and construction of the dam with the Soviets; it was designed and built under the supervision of the Soviets and West Germans.

Significance

A host of experts, including environmentalists, Nile River experts, and limnologists, testified that the Aswān High Dam spawned a number of severe environmental problems soon after its completion. Flaws in many of the dam builders’ initial assumptions proved to be at the root of these environmental difficulties. In normal years before the dam’s completion, the Nile annually bore an estimated 30 billion tons of water to the Mediterranean Sea. Through the 1960’s, influential experts erroneously argued that this unused water was wasted. In fact, the water was rich in sediments that vastly augmented the aquatic food chain on which Mediterranean marine life depended while maintaining a delicate balance in the sea’s salinity. Once the Aswān High Dam trapped these sediments behind it and allowed a clear Nile to flow to the sea, the adverse impact on marine life was quickly felt.

Across the eastern Mediterranean’s continental shelf—twelve miles wide and six hundred miles long—organic carbons and plankton reportedly declined by one-third. The area’s sardines, which previously accounted for one-fifth of Egypt’s fish catch, disappeared, as did crustaceans and other marine life. Furthermore, the salinity of the Mediterranean Sea rose markedly, as saline waters from the Red Sea, feeding into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, were no longer counteracted by relatively sweet Nile waters. The long-term damage to the area’s plant and animal life, some experts subsequently warned, could prove disastrous.

When the Nile flooded in normal years before 1971, it deposited about 130 million tons of enriched silts along the Nile Valley, converting the land within its limits into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. The Aswān High Dam was intended to halt such flooding and trap the river’s rich sediments behind it in Lake Nasser. In turn, as the sediments sank into the lake, they were expected to seal the porous Nubian sandstone beneath and prevent the loss of water through seepage. The Nile’s sediments, however, sank in the lake’s middle. The lake’s water—an estimated 15 million cubic meters annually—thus began seeping through its three hundred-mile-long sides into rock capable of absorbing unlimited quantities of water.

Because Lake Nasser was created in one of the earth’s hottest and driest regions, Aswān planners had anticipated a high rate of evaporation, about 10 billion cubic meters yearly; however, they failed to recognize the significance of evaporation resulting from high wind velocities. The Egyptian Meteorological Institute calculated in 1974 that high winds brought evaporation losses up to 15 billion cubic meters per year, or one-half of the total amount planners had feared was being wasted by leaving the Nile to flow relatively unchecked into the sea. A high rate of evaporation further increased the salinity of the lake and surrounding lands—lands whose salts in the time before the dam would have been scoured away by Nile floods.

The large Nile Delta, the existence of which depended on the river’s annual deposits along its two 135-mile mouths, also began suffering several ecological effects from the shutoff of sediments. The delta began shrinking, a process accelerated by the erosive effects of the Mediterranean’s powerful west-to-east currents. By the mid-1970’s, the delta coastline in several places was retreating up to several hundred yards per year. Because the sediment-free Nile also flowed more swiftly than before, it, too, ravaged delta lands, scouring portions of the riverbed as well.

North of the dam, the river’s silt-free flow also undermined older barrier dams and undercut 550 bridges, all of which had been constructed after 1952 as part of Egypt’s modernization efforts. By the mid-1970’s, in an effort to rectify this situation, the Egyptian Ministry of the High Dam was forced to draft plans for construction of ten new barrier dams at an estimated cost of $250 million, or one-fourth of the cost of the Aswān High Dam itself.

A decade after its dedication, the dam seemed to have caused or aggravated a host of additional environmental problems that resulted in fresh disappointments and new hardships for the peoples of a crowded, developing nation. Of the millions of acres that Nasser had hoped to reclaim for agriculture through use of lake and river waters, only 300,000 acres had been brought under cultivation by 1980. Deprived of the Nile’s rich sediments, these and most of the remainder of Egypt’s six million cultivated acres became dependent on artificial fertilizers, the bulk of which had to be imported.

Cultivated lands in the delta and many other parts of northern Egypt were rapidly being lost as soils became waterlogged and too salty for crops. However, nearly 700,000 acres were brought under irrigation, thereby allowing double cropping, but irrigation rapidly increased soil salinity. Irrigation likewise dramatically increased the incidence of the disease schistosomiasis. Water snails hosting the parasite responsible for the deadly disease proliferated in sluggish irrigation channels, and the incidence of schistosomiasis had risen by 80 percent by the end of the 1970’s. (With the use of a new drug to combat the disease in the 1980’s, the incidence began to decline.)

After immense expenditures aimed at turning the Nile to greater advantage, Egyptians still lacked adequate water supplies two decades after the dam’s completion. They had less water available, in fact, than before the dam was built. A respected Nile River expert, H. E. Herst, reported that Egypt received 10 billion cubic meters less water each year than it required for irrigation, river transport, and the dam’s turbines. In the mid-1970’s, evaporation and seepage continued to prevent Lake Nasser from filling to the necessary minimum levels, and Abdel Goher, Egypt’s leading limnologist, suggested that it might take two hundred years for the lake to do so. Consequently, only two of the dam’s huge turbines were operative much of the time. Moreover, few of the Nubians who were relocated when the lake was forming returned to its shores. A decade later, only about three thousand people attempted fishing there, because crocodiles, scorpions, and wolves fleeing from slowly rising waters made work on the lake too hazardous.

Despite these environmental setbacks, the dam has successfully protected lives and land from flooding and drought. The dam also generates much-needed electricity for the developing nation. When the dam reached its first peak output, it produced half of Egypt’s electricity. However, by the end of the twentieth century, the dam provided less than one-fifth of the nation’s power. Its twelve generators can produce up to 10 billion kilowatt-hours annually. The Aswān High Dam not only has had a positive impact on Egypt’s economy but also has served as an outstanding symbol of political might and Arab pride. Engineering;dams Dams;Aswān High[Aswan High] Aswān High Dam[Aswan High Dam]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Anne. Nasser: Life and Times. London: Haus, 2005. Biography of the father of modern Egypt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beckinsale, Robert P. “Human Response to River Regimes.” In Water, Earth, and Man, edited by R. J. Chorley. London: Methuen, 1969. Brief, clear chapter places some problems arising from the Aswān High Dam in the context of similar problems resulting from the sheer size of huge dam projects elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Morris Llewellyn. Nasser’s Aswan Dam. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Institute, 1956. Study written while the dam was being planned and financing was being debated provides timely background on the politics of the Eisenhower administration’s decision to withdraw offers of aid to Egypt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goudie, Andrew. The Human Impact. 6th ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. Scholarly, clearly written work places the Aswān Dam’s environmental problems in context with the human impacts on soil and water. Includes illustrations, maps, graphs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nutting, Anthony. Nasser. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972. Authoritative view of U.S., British, and Egyptian diplomacy presented by a former undersecretary for foreign affairs and negotiator of the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Claire. “Aswan Dam Looses a Flood of Problems.” Life, February 12, 1971, 46-46A. Experienced freelance journalist provides a dramatic and well-documented catalog of environmental damages wrought by the dam against a background of Nasser’s expectations and predictions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Der Schalie, Henry. “The Aswan High Dam Revisited.” Environment 16 (November, 1974): 18-20. A specialized environmental analysis of the dam’s impact on Egypt’s soil, water, wildlife, and human population.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vatikiotis, P. J. The Modern History of Egypt. 4th ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Authoritative work by a leading student of modern Egypt provides excellent context for the political imperatives that inspired the Aswān High Dam. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheelock, Keith. Nasser’s New Egypt: A Critical Analysis. New York: Praeger, 1960. Excellent study focuses on the diplomacy and international finance operations associated with the dam project. Includes illustrations and bibliography.

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