Aswan is a very prominent city located along the Nile in Egypt and a city which is literally straddled by two dams in order to control the water flow of the Nile. While the Nile River itself has strong biblical connections it has also caused major problems in the area due to regular flooding. It was the damage which the flooding was doing to the region which prompted the creation of the Aswan High Dam and the Aswan Low Dam.
The project itself was enormous and took many years to complete and while there are many benefits to the high and low dams there are also a number of downsides which have predominantly impacted upon the environment.
The initial problem with flooding
For literally centuries there have been serious issues regarding the constant flooding of the Nile River and the damage which it was doing to the local environment and farming communities. Each and every summer would see substantial flows of water from East Africa which caused serious flooding along all areas of the Nile. In high water years local farmers often saw their crops wiped out and in low water years there was often widespread famine and drought.
However when considering the damage which the constant flooding was doing to the region there was also a requirement to appreciate that these floods brought valuable nutrients and minerals to the region and created a very fertile farmland along the Nile. Unfortunately, as time went on it became apparent that the flooding had to be controlled in some way as the damage to the local environment and farming community was far outweighing the positive factors which these floods brought to the region.
The idea for the Aswan Low Dam
The first attempt at creating a dam in the Aswan area goes back to the 1000s when the ruler of Egypt deemed a requirement for flood controls along the Nile. Initially he brought in an Iraqi engineer although when his initial fieldwork suggested a dam was not viable at the time he was forced to fake mental illness in order to try and escape from the project. Legend has it that his plan to fake mental failed and he was kept under house arrest from 1011 to 1021 when the ruler al-Hakim died.
It was not until 1889, when the British became involved, that the first dam became a reality. Construction of the dam began in 1889 and lasted some 13 years finishing in 1902 with the project opened on 10 December 1902 by HRH the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. The dam itself was what is known as a gravity dam and was 1900 m long and 54 m high however the project was found to be inadequate in later years!
Initial the dam underwent two severe rebuilds from 1907 to 1912 and 1929 to 1933 when the height of the dam was increased to accommodate the ever-increasing power of the Nile. When the dam nearly flooded again in 1946 the rulers in the region quickly realised that a further heightening of the dam wall was only a short-term solution and it was decided that a second dam would be built 4 miles upriver to control the flow of water before it reached the low dam.
The Aswan High Dam
The second Aswan Dam encountered a number of serious problems from day one and having been initiated in 1954 it was not completed until 1970. Initially there were problems with the financing of the project and although the US and Britain agreed a loan of $270 million to the Egyptian leader Nasser there were later political moves to “marginalise Nasser” at which point the promise of finance was removed. There is much speculation as to why the US and Britain had a change of heart but in 1958 the Soviet Union stepped forward with both finance and practical assistance in creating what was an enormous rock and clay dam and a significant challenge to engineers.
Between the initial design stage of the second dam and the completion in 1970 there were serious issues voiced by the archaeological community with regards to sites and monuments which would potentially be lost forever. In 1960 there was a serious archaeological dig to unearth and preserve various monuments and buildings of historic relevance under the guise of UNESCO. Bizarrely, many of his archaeological treasures were then given away to various countries and parties who assisted with the building of the second dam!
Specifications for the Aswan High Dam
The Aswan High Dam is enormous being 3830 m in length, 980 m wide, 40 m wide at the crest and over 110 m tall. Behind the dam is the Lake Nasser Reservoir which is over 550 km long and 35 km at its widest point, with a surface area of 5250 km². This enormous dam project is able to pass through 11,000 m³ of water per second with additional capacity for an extra 5,000 m³ as and when required.
The Aswan High Dam generates electricity via twelve 175 MW generators which produce an output of 2.1 GW. When the dam initially began to generate electricity for Egypt it was producing around 50% of the country’s total need although this figure has fallen to around 15% over time. The dam itself also created a fishing industry in the region, averted a number of potentially dangerous floods in 1964 and 1973 and droughts in 1972/73 and 1983/84.
Environmental and cultural issues
The massive Aswan High Dam has caused a number of issues within Egypt’s where great areas of lower Nubia were flooded and over 60,000 people were rehoused by the government. However, one of the major issues is the massive deposits of silt which are held behind the dam and which for centuries had replenished the floodplains of the Nile creating an extremely fertile land. This is having more and more of an impact on the local economy and local environment with coastal erosion and a lack of nutrients a major concern for those farming the land.
As a consequence of the less fertile land, a number of farmers have been forced to use fertiliser to get the best out of their crop programs which has caused serious issues and alleged chemical poisoning further down the river. There are also many people who believe the Aswan High Dam in particular is responsible for a serious reduction in fish catches in the Mediterranean. It would appear that nobody was aware of the potentially enormous ecological problems which the dams would have in the region and the growing impact.
There are many negative and positive issues with regards to the two Aswan Dams and even though some of these issues appear to be getting worse as time goes on, the positive impact on the region has probably been more marked. There was no way farmers in the region could continue under the constant threat of serious flooding and serious droughts. While some would argue that the reduction in essential minerals and nutrients because of the dams has impacted the local environment, local economy and local wildlife it is difficult to see how this issue could have been accommodated once the dams were built.
On the positive side the Aswan High Dam in particular produces a large proportion of Egypt’s electricity and is proving very useful with regards to irrigation for farmland in the region. While there is constant criticism regarding the building of these two projects there is no doubt that without them those in the region would have a very different lifestyle to the one they have at present.