Aswan High Dam

The story of Egypt's mammoth hydroelectric plant.

Egypt recently launched a tender for the expansion and renovation of the Aswan High Dam, which once again brought the country’s largest dam to the foreground of the nation’s consciousness.

While maintenance and expansion projects on the dam are nothing extraordinary, the Aswan High Dam itself is.

Many would be surprised to learn that the Aswan High Dam is not only one of the world’s largest embankment dams on the world’s most storied river, but also a matter of historical, national, and political importance.

Aswan Dam has featured in political debates since the 1950s, changed the course of agricultural practices in Egypt in the 1970s, and even influenced Egypt’s thousands-year-old culture.

But these have all been unintentional consequences.

The original designers and constructors of the Aswan High Dam had just one simple objective: to bring the mighty Nile river under control.

Deadly River

The Nile river, which has arguably—and quite literally—watered the Egyptian civilization for 5,000 years, has two downsides.

First was its much-dreaded annual flooding, which had the potential to annihilate all agricultural crops across the Nile river valley.

And second was its even more dreaded low-water years, which foreshadowed drought, famine, and calamity.

The ancient Egyptians yearned for those summers in which the river’s behavior was something in between these two extremes.

Since ancient times, in some fortunate years the Nile briefly inundated much of the Nile river valley just long enough to enrich the delta’s soil with nutrients, without damaging the farmlands.

Egyptians had, for years, hoped that the mighty river would always behave in this way. Since the 11th century some attempts had been made to construct a dam on the Nile to bring it under human control, but the first effective structure was not built until the turn of the 20th century.

A Dam in the Desert

Between 1898 and 1902, a dam designed by senior British engineers, Sir William Willcocks, Sir Benjamin Baker, and Sir John Aird, was implemented. Located some 700km to the south of Cairo, this was considered a marvel of engineering at the time and gave the careers of its designers quite a boost.

However, the fact remained that the low dam was not quite effective in bringing the Nile under control, hence the necessity of building another high dam a couple of kilometers up the river.

The construction of the new dam became a matter of political importance after the overthrowing of monarchy in 1952.

Taming the Nile was perceived by many Egyptian revolutionaries as a metaphorical reference to Egypt being in charge of its own destiny.

The problem of funding the project was yet another concern. It is believed that the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 was partly in order to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam with revenues from the canal.

It was a sign of changing political winds across the region that, while the first dam was constructed by the British colonialists in the 19th century, the new dam was largely a product of Soviet engineering with the participation of Arab contractors.

Under construction

Beginning in January 1960, the construction took the entire decade. Although the Aswan High Dam was officially completed by July, 1970, it was not until 1976 that its reservoir reached full capacity.

This marked a historic moment. For the first time in over 5,000 years history of Egypt, the Nile was finally under the control of humans.

In roughly half a century that has passed since 1976, the Aswan High Dam has influenced the population’s way of life in many ways. The agriculture sector has benefited hugely: instead of the doomed cycle of drought and flood, now there is a year-round irrigation system in place in the Nile Delta.

Thanks to the Aswan High Dam, a nation without much rainfall such as Egypt has become a major producer of crops such as wheat and other grains. The agriculture sector accounts for up to 15% of the Egyptian GDP, while employing a fifth of the nation’s workforce.

It is estimated that with the Aswan High Dam, roughly 1,000,000 hectares has been reclaimed from the desert along the Nile river valley.

Concerns remain

At the same time, a never-ending debate has been going on about the great dam’s costs versus its benefits. The endangerment of archeological sites such as the Abu Simbel temples was among the nation’s worries in the 1970s—an issue which is still debated to this day.

The dam’s reservoir, Lake Nasser, is now facing sediment accumulation, which has necessitated a series of maintenance operations.

The various power generation projects in Aswan have also, at times, underdelivered, though the bidding process for a renewable hydroelectric upgrade begins in 2023.

Nevertheless, there has never been a dam as intertwined with a nation’s history and identity as the Aswan High Dam for the people of Egypt. It is largely considered to be yet another edifice in the nation’s collection of notable and storied man-made structures.

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