Geology Home Page
Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Josh Brock
Damming the Nile: The Aswan High Dam
history, civilizations have been founded, and sustained
by the life-giving properties of major rivers, such as the Nile. Inevitably,
as a species, we always strive to safeguard and take control of such
resources, wrangling them in so that they may become more
advantageous to our needs. There can be no more perfect example of
the benefits, and downfalls, of this control than the Aswan High Dam,
Satellite Image of Aswan High Dam) (1)
The Aswan High Dam
was a project that began its infancy in 1954
after the Egyptian Revolution, where the political climate was finally ripe
for the construction of a new, modern, super damn. Not surprisingly, the
Aswan High Dam was not the first attempt to tame the mighty Nile, but
was made to replace the aging and maintenance dependant Aswan Low
Dam which was constructed by the British in 1902.
The Low Dam, which had to be raised on two separate occasions to
keep from overflowing, was no longer able to keep up its fight against the
river. The British had entertained the notion of raising it a third time, but
the idea was met with stiff opposition. With the opportunity granted by
the Revolution in 1954, however, the newly formed government of Egypt
actively began planning and seeking funding for the project.
At first, the United States was set to fund the project, but the
was later scrapped due to a shifting political climate. The deal then, not
surprisingly, came to the Russians, who gladly financed the project in 1958.
Construction of the 3, 830m long and 980m wide Dam began in 1960, and
reached full capacity by July 1970.
(Aswan Dam Project Design) (2)
benefits of the construction of the Aswan Dam can be seen as
the global justification for constructing a Dam. The first and foremost
benefit of the structure is to control the devastating floods that could
tear through the Nile River Valley. Indeed, given the fact that
approximately 95% of Egypts population lives within 12 miles of the
Dam(3), this was a very central issue to consider.
Along with controlling flood waters, the Dam also allowed irrigation
water to be dispersed to the large agricultural region. Farms that were
formerly hampered by either flooding or drought could now increase
productivity dramatically with due to the protection and hydration
afforded by the Dam.
Another benefit of constructing the Dam was the production of
cheap electricity. With twelve electric generators rated at 175 megawatts,
the Dam provides 2.1 gigawatts of electricity. This electricity provides
much of the power supply for Egypt.
Aside from electricity, flood control, and farming benefits, the
reservoir created by the Aswan Dam, Lake Nasser, provides a growing
fishing industry. While the industry boasts of growing yield, it is
hampered by the lack of large markets in the area.
(Aswan High Dam) (4)
benefits of Aswan Dam are clearly dramatic,
construction of the concrete behemoth has given rise to numerous
environmental issues that were not taken into account during
The first, and relatively easiest to anticipate, issue was the
displacement of thousands of locals from the project area. Lake
Nasser, when created, occupied an area previously inhabited by
over 90,000 Nubians. Along with displacing these people and in
effect destroying their lifestyle, the flooding caused many
archeological sites to be erased and buried under a literal wall
Next, is the negative effect of the gradual salinization of
the Nile farmland. In the past, the soil in the fertile region was
annually replenished as the river flooded each season. This flooding
would wash away the salt produced by excessive farming, and
redeposit a fresh layer of rich soil and minerals over the area. Now
that the Dam has stopped this annual happening, the soil is beginning
to lose its fertility, and is nowhere near as rich today as it was before
the construction of the Dam.
Another agricultural related effect is the chemical pollution of
artificial fertilizers. Once clean of chemical pollutants due to the natural
fertilization process, the waters are now showing signs of
contamination as farmers are forced to rely on man-made materials
to increase the productivity of their fields.
Curiously enough, the Dam has also had a very dramatic effect
on the population of fish near the eastern basin of the Mediterranean.
This region, which is traditionally un-fertile in minerals, used to depend
on a flow of silicates and phosphate from the Nile to provide sustenance
for the underwater life. Now that the flow has been blocked, the fishing
industry has taken a hit and is not expected to recover.
These reasons, combined with a continual build up of silt in the
Nasser Lake Reservoir (an inevitable phenomenon which will eventually
decrease productivity and render the Dam obsolete) are fuel for many
debates about the usefulness of the Dam for the Egyptian Ecosystem
(Temple of Abu Simel which was displaced by Dam construction) (5)
In conclusion, Aswan High Dam is a structure which has proven
both to be an economical and industrial boon, and an environmental issue.
This Dam is representative, in many ways, of the pros and cons of
constructing a similar structure all over the world. The debate about the
effectiveness of the Aswan High Dam is ongoing, and proves that the
potential effects of construction such a project, both good and bad,
should be carefully considered and studied in depth.
http://earth.jsc.nasa.gov/sseop/EFS/lores.pl?PHOTO=STS102-303-17 (photo) (1)
http://www.proutworld.org/features/nile-filer/image002.jpg (photo) (2)