Aswan High Dam

Aswan High Dam

After the Low Dam was almost over-topped in 1946, the British administration decided that rather than raise the dam a third time, a second dam should be built some 7 km upriver. The post-war years saw major changes in Egypt, including the growth of nationalism, the abrogation of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, and the overthrow of the monarchy, led by the Free Officers Movement, including its ultimate leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as Anwar Sadat.

Planning for the “High Dam” proper began in 1954, following the revolution, and changed development priorities. Initially, both the US and USSR were interested in the development of the dam, but this occurred in the increasingly tense readings of Cold War happenings, as well as growing intra-Arab rivalries.

In 1955 Nasser was trying to portray himself as the leader of Arab nationalism, in opposition to the traditional monarchies, especially Hashemite Iraq following its signing of the 1955 Baghdad Pact. At that time the US feared that communism would spread to the Middle East and saw Nasser as a natural leader of an anti-communist Arab league. The US and Britain offered to help finance construction of the high dam, with a loan of US$270 million, in return for Nasser’s leadership in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. While opposed both to communism and imperialism, Nasser presented himself as a tactical neutralist, and sought to work with both the US and USSR for Egyptian and Arab benefit.

After a particularly criticized raid by Israel against Egyptian forces in Gaza in 1955, Nasser realized that he could not legitimately portray himself as the leader of pan-Arab nationalism if he could not defend his country militarily against Israel. In addition to his development plans, he looked to quickly modernize his military, and turned first to the US.

US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and US President Dwight Eisenhower told Nasser that the US would supply him with weapons only if they were used for defensive purposes and accompanied by US military personnel for supervision and training. Nasser did not accept these conditions and then looked to the Soviet Union for support. Although Dulles believed that Nasser was only bluffing and that the USSR would not aid Nasser, he was wrong; the USSR promised Nasser a quantity of arms in exchange for a deferred payment of Egyptian grain and cotton. On 27 September 1955, Nasser announced an arms deal, with Czechoslovakia acting as a middleman for the Soviet support. Instead of retaliating against Nasser for turning to the Soviets, Dulles sought to improve relations with him. This explains the later offer of December 1955, in which the US and UK pledged $56 and $14 million respectively towards the construction of the dam.

Though the “Czech arms deal” actually increased US willingness to invest in Aswan, the British cited the deal as a reason for withdrawing their funding. What angered Dulles much more was Nasser’s recognition of communist China, which was in direct conflict with Dulles’s policy of containment. There are several other reasons why the US decided to withdraw the offer of funding. Dulles believed that the Soviet Union would not fulfill its commitment to help the Egyptians. He was also irritated by Nasser’s neutrality and attempts to play both sides of the Cold War. At the time, other western allies in the Middle East, including Turkey and Iraq, were irritated that Egypt, a persistently neutral country, was being offered so much aid.

In June 1956 the Soviets offered Nasser $1,120,000,000 at 2% interest for the construction of the dam. On 19 July the US State Department announced that American financial assistance for the High Dam was “not feasible in present circumstances.”

On 26 July 1956, with wide Egyptian acclaim, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal as well as fair compensation for the former owners. Nasser planned on the revenues generated by the canal helping to fund construction of the High Dam. When the Suez War broke out, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel were mainly successful in attaining their immediate military objectives, but pressure from the US and the USSR at the United Nations and elsewhere forced them to withdraw In 1958 the Soviet Union provided funding for the dam project.

In the 1950s archaeologists began raising concerns that several major historical sites were about to be under water. A rescue operation began in 1960 under UNESCO. The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, was preserved by moving 22 monuments and architectural complexes to the shores of Lake Nasser under the UNESCO Nubia Campaign. Also moved were Philae, Kalabsha and Amada. Other monuments were granted to countries that helped with the works (such as the Debod temple in Madrid, the Temple of Taffeh in Leiden and the Temple of Dendur in New York). The remaining archeological sites have been flooded by Lake Nasser, among others the Buhen fort. A number of historical monuments were located in the area that was flooded by Lake Nasser.

Construction and filling 1960–1976

The Soviets also provided technicians and heavy machinery. The enormous rock and clay dam was designed by the Soviet Hydro projects Institute along with some Egyptian engineers. Twenty-five thousand Egyptian engineers and workers formed the backbone of the workforce required to complete this tremendous project which deeply changed many aspects in Egypt.

On the Egyptian side, the project was led by Osman Ahmed Osman’s Arab Contractors The relatively young Osman underbid his only competitor by one-half.

  • 1960: Start of construction on 9 January[
  • 1964: First dam construction stage completed, reservoir started filling
  • 1970: The High Dam, as-Sad al-‘Aali, completed on 21 July
  • 1976: Reservoir reached capacity
  • 2011: plans to build extension to dam

The High Dam has resulted in protection from floods and droughts, an increase in agricultural production and employment, electricity production and improved navigation that benefits tourism. Conversely, the dam flooded a large area, causing the relocation of over 100,000 people and submerged archaeological sites, some of which were relocated as well. The dam is also blamed for coastline erosion, soil salinity and health problems.

The assessment of the costs and benefits of the dam remains a controversial issue, however, decades after its completion. According to one estimate, the annual economic benefits of the High Dam right after its completion were Egyptian Pound (EP) 255 million (US$587m using the 1970 exchange rate of 2.3 US$ per EP): EP140 million from agricultural production, EP100 million from hydroelectric generation, EP10 million from flood protection, and EP5 million from improved navigation. At the time of its construction, total cost, including unspecified “subsidiary projects” and the extension of electric power lines, amounted to Egyptian EP450 million. Not taking into account the negative environmental and social impacts of the dam, its costs are thus estimated to have been recovered within only two years. One observer notes: “The impacts of the Aswan High Dam (…) have been overwhelmingly positive. Although the Dam has contributed to some environmental problems, these have proved to be significantly less severe than was generally expected, or currently believed by many people.” Another observer disagrees and recommended that the dam should be torn down. Tearing it down would cost only a fraction of the funds required for “continually combating the dam’s consequential damage” and 500,000 hectares of fertile land could be reclaimed from the layers of mud on the bed of the drained reservoir

Periodic floods and droughts have affected Egypt since ancient times. The dam mitigated the effects of floods, such as in 1964, 1973 and 1988. Navigation along the river has been improved, both upstream and downstream of the dam. Sailing along the Nile is a favorite tourism activity, which is mainly done during winter when the natural flow of the Nile would have been too low to allow navigation of cruise ships. A new fishing industry has been created around Lake Nasser, though it is struggling due to its distance from any significant markets. The annual production was about 35 000 tons in the mid-90s. Factories for the fishing industry and packaging have been set up near the Lake