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Crime against the Nile God: the Aswan High Dam

Updated on June 2, 2010
The Nile God
The Nile God


To begin this article, I have chosen two wonderful citations, one coming from an ancient Egyptian hymn to the Nile God and the other one by T.S. Eliot:

"Hail to thee O Nile! Thou showest thyself in this land, coming in peace, giving life to Egypt: O Ammon, (thou) leadest night into day, a leading that rejoices the heart! Overflowing the gardens created by Ra, giving life to all animals; watering the land without ceasing.The way of heaven descending: Lover of food, bestower of corn, Giving light to every home, O Ptah! "

"I do not know much about the Gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god-sullen, untamed and intractable...keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of what men choose to forget".

Ever since the era of one of the earliest civilization, and after, since the Greek historian Herodotus, Egypt had been considered "a gift of the Nile", subject to the spates and floods of the river from which the Egyptians had in any case drawn wealth and prosperity: it right to say that "Without the Nile there would have been no Egypt." The enigma of its sources, the life it gave to barren areas, and the mysterious nature of its vital flow have produced endless speculations, myths and legends, from antiquity to modern times. In fact such interest is well justified: the Nile, as it flows gently through Egypt, may justly be considered the greatest river in the world, a constant source of wonder and beauty, still in these modern time...
The world of the Nile symbolism was indeed imbued with hope and gratitude to Nature in ancient times, and now with anxiety, fear and suspicion: what a loss for men to behave in such a manner with such an incredible giver of life and prosperity, nay, life itself in those arid areas.

construction of the dam
construction of the dam
aerial view of dam
aerial view of dam

History of the dam

The first Aswan dam, built in 1889 when Egypt was under British control, was to irrigate cash crops such as cotton. The sluice gates of the first dam were opened during the flood season to let the floodwaters proceed unimpeded downstream. The Nile flood originates in the Ethiopian highlands, the source of the Blue Nile, during the monsoon season. Silt deposited by the floodwaters formed a thick, fertile layer of alluvium that made the Nile valley and delta one of the most productive agricultural regions of the whole planet.
After the Egyptian revolt in 1952 that brought Nasser to power, the Soviet Union sponsored the building of the Aswan high Dam, five kilometers long, one kilometer wide at its base and rising 107 meters in height. This dam, called ironically "the pyramid for the living" by the president of Egypt, permanently stopped the annual flood of the Nile valley and delta. The Aswan dam had, and has, a considerable symbolic impact, both for the arabs and for the repercussions on Nasser's leadership. During his revolutionary experience symbols and images were important factors in the struggle to win the sympathy and support of various sectors of the society for the new regime and its values. The struggle for the building of the Aswan High Dam, like several other projects (such as the Helwan Iron and Steel complex) was appropriated by the revolutionary regime and its supporters as a central symbol in their efforts to construct Egypt's new values: clearly, the construction of the dam was motivated by factors outside the realm of water resource utilization and hydrology, what to speak of some care toward the environment and the nature of this wondrous river!
Right from its construction, there was strong opposition (silenced by Nasser himself, of course) regarding the effects of the dam, effects that were to become increasingly evident over time. The problem is often represented, as with all large dams, in South Asia in particular, by the fondness for profit of the political classes in power in these countries and the undeniable economic advantages that the construction of large dam can bring local and foreign businesses. The case of the Aswan dam is exemplary for the question of the construction of large dams, from many points of view: firstly, for the close link between foreign policy, water policy and environmental questions; secondly, for its mythicisation and at the same time the mystification that have been conducted over the years on the impact of this dam; thirdly, because this was a work of considerable size, located in a semi-arid areas; fourthly, because it was possible to evaluate its impact only after its construction as there were no specific studies on the short-term effect; and finally, because it represents clearly and unambiguously to what extent the use of natural resources in a so inappropriate and disrespectful mode can bring about the distruction of the environment.
The control of the waters of the river Nile or, at least, the regulation of them that protected the Egyptians from the natural phenomena linked to it, has been a prority for the governments for centuries.  From the arabic conquest of the Egypt, the Nile, source of blessings in the glorious past, became a source of constant terror: many had searched for a way to halt the disastrous fluctuations of the Nile between floods and drought, which caused famine (many cases of cannibalism are recorded) and inflation, and brought revolts and political instability.

The river is, in fact, the only surface resource in Egyptian territory and its waters must satisfy the needs of a constantly growing population. The dam was constructed essentially for three reasons: to control the flow of the Nile, to generate hydroelectric energy and to stock large quantities of water in order to ensure a costant supply of water throughout the year.
In the period when the dam was constructed, the notions of environmental impact had not yet emerged and often even the construction of engineering works of considerable size were not preceded by assessments that verified their suitability for a certain context and impact of a given territory. The environmental consequences of the Aswan High Dam best exemplify what environmentalists fear most: the consequences are largerly unknown before something is built; once built, little can be done to counter them.
There are however, in fact, numerous costs on both the environmental and socio-economic levels. Here a list of the most significant, that will be examined after:
-Worsening of the water quality
-The destruction of natural resources
-Modification of the soil composition
-Lower quantities of fish caught
-Spread of diseases transmitted by water
These elements, all common to the dams of the world, revealed themselves to be particularly important in the case of the construction of the Aswan dam.
Like other projects that alter the natural environment, the construction of the new Aswan dam and the change in the flow of the Nile caused major problems in the ecological balance of the area. The Aswan High Dam brought about some devasting changes to the natural environment. The Nile does not merely stop at Aswan, as Nasser claimed, out of madness, it effectively dies as an ecosystem: no water is left for natural ecosystems, typical of the wetlands, and the drainage to the sea serves only to flush out agricultural, industrial and urban effluents. Moreover the controlled, regular slow flow of water in the river is altering the soil along its banks, because the soils were exposed to a river with a variable water level before the dam. This, when combined with fertilizers and other chemichals, has drastically changed the river's aquatic life.

Preliminary surveys, as we have remarked before, were not conducted to establish and quantify the impact that the dam would have on the surrounding environment when it was built. Only later numerous studies were conducted to determine the nature and the extent of the risk of the dam in the short and long term.
These are the main problems, caused by the dam and revealed by the studies:

Soil loss and pollution of the water: Before the construction of the dam, the Nile transported 100 million tons of soil every year. About 88% ended up in the Mediterranean sea and the remaining 13 millions tons served to fertilise the Egyptian fields during periods of spate. With the construction of the dam, a large quantity of silt ends up in Lake nasser. In addition to affecting the productivity of the Nile valley and delta, agricultural land has been lost by erosion of the Nile delta by the Mediterranean sea, which had previously been replenished by the annual inundations. The soil loss has also altered the equilibrium between the advance of the delta and the destruction of the coast by sea waves, creating a serious problem of coastal erosion. Erosion of delta has also been noted in its north-east zone. There are five lakes in this area which risk becoming brackish and also show problems of underground saline infiltration, with the risk of damaging agriculture in the northern zone of the delta. The dam builders had foreseen phenomena of this type and had recommended the construction of a wall along the bank from Port Said to Alexandria...240 km of walls!
This meant that many farmers were forced to use chimical fertilisers instead of natural product. The fertilisers, partly imported-the alluvial deposits were free, but fertilizer is not- and partly produced in plants close to the dam itself, cause an increase in the salinity of the soil and the part that reaches the river acts as a pollutant. After the construction, the reduction in soil fertility due to the loss of the nitrogen component contained in the silt had to be compensated by the annual addition of about 13 thousand tons of lime-nitrate fertiliser- as we can see, the industries that produce fertilisers have make a lot of money, thanks to the loss of the soil's fertility- and this is certainly a more expensive procedure than the natural event of the annual flood of the river!
The river also functions as the waste-disposal system of the country; with increasing industrialization and the rapid growth of population, pollution may become a serious problem, as industrial and human wastes overwhelm the Nile's cathartic capacity - though it has far to go before it reaches the state of pollution which afflicts the Rhine and other large European rivers. However, without its annual flood, the  Nile no longer flushes clean, and in the region around Cairo, has become extremely polluted.
In addition, the reduction in arable land also led to a fall in th production of the classic Egyptian building material, red bricks. Many farmers decided to sell their land to companies that sold bricks, because this was much more profitable than farming. A new law passed in the late 1980s that proibited the sale of fertile, arable land for the purpose of producing construction materials, but this has been systematically ignored.
Due to the phenomenon of soil loss, the Nile flows much faster from Aswan thus increasing the erosion of the banks. This process is particularly dangerous close to the foundations of the dam, bridges and other dams that exist north of Aswan towars Cairo.
Related to geology is the problem that there also appears to be a correlation between Lake Nasser's water level and earthquake activity. Some geologist feel that the weight of the artificial Lake is affecting underlying faults: a phenomenon that has been observed at other dam sites.

aerial view of Lake Nasser
aerial view of Lake Nasser
Nile at Aswan
Nile at Aswan
Nile at Cairo
Nile at Cairo
again Cairo
again Cairo

 Loss of water due to evaporation and seepage: Lake Nasser is situated in a very arid zone and the dam designers had foreseen a high rate of evaporation. According to laboratory calculations, the average evaporation in such an arid area should fluctuate between 12 and 17 billion cubic meters per year. As far as seepage is concerned, there are conflicting figures that vary from 0.6 billion cubic meters to 9 billion cubic meters per year. To sum up: the government estimates give an overall annual loss of 10 billion cubic meters, while non-government figures say 18 billion. The fundamental point is that if 10 billion cubic meters is exceeded, not only does Egypt lose the benefits in the quantity of water acquired with the construction of the dam (what an irony!) but actually has less water than it would have done before the building of the dam itself.
A second major problem related to this one is the risk of its fall to dead-storage levels as a  result of drought (see for examples: the great drought of 1986/1988 and the drought in Ethiopia and in the Great Lakes region). Dead-storage is the level from which a dam's reservoir, given normal use, cannot rise from again and at which it would not be possible to use water. There is also the risk of the collapse of water levels to "dead-storage" levels during years of extended droughts in upstream areas.

Damage to the cultural heritage: One of the main objections to the construction of Lake Nasser was the fact that the lake would cover the zone's many ancient ruins and archaeological remains. The area is especially rich in remains from the Paleolithic era. The desperate attempt by UNESCO to transfer the area's treasures elsewhere in the little time available was futile in safeguarding the many works that were lost or seriously damaged.

Increase in soil salinity: Due to the intensive irrigation and drainage system, the salinity of Egyptian soil has increased considerably. This has also been caused by the high levels of evaporation of water from Lake Nasser, as was explained above. Phenomena of this type are particularly present in the area of the Nile delta. According to estimates, about 35% of the land and 90% of the water of Egypet is subject to phenomena of rising salinity. The situation, so, is destined to worsen because the precipitation of dissolved salts is a non-stop process, and salts will accumulate on and near the surface. Over time, salinity in the upper soil increases and plants start to show symptoms of stress: the salinisation causes decreased agricultural yields and has helped, in the past, to bring abot the collapse of many nations.

Increase in water-related diseases: After the construction of the dam, an increase was found in water-related diseases, in particular malaria and bilharzia, that is a painful, debilitating, sometimes incurable and often fatal disease that attacks the liver, kidneys and other vital organs. Before the construction of the dam, bilharzia, in particular, was limited to a few area in Egypt, because the annual flood cycle previously swept away most of the snail along the Nile, but this natural cleansing process no longer exists.
The construction of the dam created conditions favourable to the spread of the snail, with very serious effects on the population: snail population have grown along the shores of Lake Nasser and in the exetended network of permanent irrigation canals, causing a drammatic rise in the incidence of the disease. Problems have been most acute among people living close to the shores of the reservoir and among the farmers and those who work in the irrigation ditches.
Again, the Nile annually flooded the many nooks, crannies and caves along its edge, killing the rats whose fleas carry bubonic plague. Because the floods no longer occour, the rat population has soared, and bubonic plague is once again a potential threat.

Lake Nasser
Lake Nasser
Island in the Nile
Island in the Nile
Aswan before the dam
Aswan before the dam
the dam
the dam
electricity generators
electricity generators

Displacement of the population and change in habits: The creation of Lake Nasser entailed the flooding of vast areas of fertile and arable land and the movement and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their villages. It is estimated that the dam forced more than 120,000 people to abandon their villages and to move against their will to new areas or to the cities. The lack of an adequate plan for the organisation of the move and the huge number of people involved caused many socio-economic problems. Another aspect of the question was the increase in water consumption stemming from the construction of the dam, especially for agricultural use. The farmers, who had always been used to rationing water in view of times of drought, found themselves with constant quantities of water throughout the year. This short-sightedness was accompanied by higher use of water for agriculture that provoked a rise in the water tables with the consequent destruction of plant roots and an increase in the salinity of the soil.

General environmental consequences on the lower Nile: there is no doubt that the dam has changed the state of the course of the river downstream from the dam. The channelling of the river has reduced its length. For the same reason, the number of islands in the river has fallen from 150 to 36. The most important environmental question that arose after the construction of the dam and the subsequent channelling was the lowering of the bed of the river in the part downstream of the dam.
The engineers building this dam had intended only to store more water and to produce elctricity, which they did. However, deprived of the nutrient-rich silt of the Nile's annual floodwaters, the population of sardines off the coast of the Nile delta in the Mediterranean diminished by 97% whitin two years from its construction. Differences in vegetation patterns between north and south have largely disappeared under cultivation, and it is not possible to estimate, even region by region, the extent to which the native creatures have been eradicated. Certainly the lion and the hippopotamus are only the most dramatic extinctions, and the process is still continuing. Virtually no vestiges of the Nile Valley's original ecosystems can be found today, though individual component species still occur.

Production of hydroelectric energy: the dam can count on 12 electricity generators. However, because of problems linked to the stability of the dam itself, it is not possible to activate all generators, with the result that Egypt requires additional generators to produce the energy it needs. The dam was supposed to be a major source of hydroelectric power for Egypt, but unfortunately, as we have seen, this potential was never fully realized. Lake Nasser did not rise to its anticipated level because of its high rate of evaporation, the water diverted to irrigate cropland and possibly leakage through the reservoir bottom. Electricity was and is necessary not only to supply the needs of a growing population, but also to provide energy for the production of fertilizers as a substitute for the alluvional deposits formerly left behind by the annual floods.
From 1990s it also became clear that despite many initiatives over the past century, Egypt still faces a genuine crisis in terms of water supply. This has arisen partly because of the greatly increased demand for water resources by all countries along the Nile, but the problem is made worse by natural variation in climate (particularly serious droughts in Ethiopia): analysis of the Nile flow records shows that recent droughts are part of a long-term dry phase that started in mid 1960s (it is curious: the years of the construction of the high dam!).

The Aswan dam continues to cost Egypt and the whole Mediterranean sea an environmental well-being and great deal of money... Another "auspicious" gift of the industrial revolution, of the fondness for money and of the disregard and contempt for Nature!


Submit a Comment

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Dolores, thanks for your important comments!

    I agree with all that you have wrote: always these dangerous works are carried on with contempt for the environment, for the people and their traditions, for the archaeological and historical treasures that are being destroyed...really, money blinds men to the extent that they destroy themselves and all that is around them, and for what?

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Reddog, thanks for your very meaningful comments! The governments, I fear, only look after money and profits and that is why they don't care to protect the natural equilibrium, even if this same equilibrium is their very source of life! What I fear the most is exactly what you have wrote: once a thing is done, there is scarce or none possibility to restore the previous situation; particularly for dams: in fact, there is no way to restore the Nile to its previous state, because the mass of water of the Lake Nasser would flood the whole country, this is what the Egyptians fear the most and this is also the reason of the strict controls of the dam itself and of its global consequences.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    8 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Such a well researched, informative piece! How many dams have been built around the world with no thought to the impact on the environment, people, and cultural heritage. Excellent. Thumbs up and Stumbled.

  • reddog1027 profile image


    8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

    The people in power never seem to thing further than the end of their term in office. When will we learn to let well enough alone. Once the changes are made it is almost impossible to turn back the clock. The reasons for the negative impact of the Aswan Dam is the same reason that the Pacific salmon did not return to spawn in the western rivers of the United State. Nobody even cared enough to find the answers first.

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Many thanks, thevoice! I hope it is enough informative!

  • thevoice profile image


    8 years ago from carthage ill

    beautiful hub read write work read thanks


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