The Aswan Dam, the Largest Dam on the Nile

Worthy of worldwide wonder and curiosity, Egypt has long been admired for its pharaonic constructions. The country’s prowess is not confined to antiquity, either. Last century, the country distinguished itself with one of the largest, most important and most controversial engineering works to be built anywhere on the planet. We are, of course, talking about the gigantic Aswan Dam, a project intriguing from architectural and historical points of view. One of the biggest Cold War power struggles played out around construction of the Aswan Dam. Beyond this historical curiosity, the dam’s size alone was enough to merit international prominence: the dam is 3,600 metres long, 11 metres high, and 980 metres wide at its base. The most awe-inspiring fact is how thick it is: almost one kilometre thick (tapering to “just” 40 metres at the top). This says more about the pressure to which it is subjected than any other single number.

The Old Aswan Dam

The Aswan Dam we’re talking about is actually the Aswan High Dam, the new barrage built between 1960 and 1970. However, between 1899 and 1902, Europeans built an earlier dam, now known as the Old Aswan Dam, south of the city to have some control over flooding of the Nile. At just 19 metres long and 54 metres high, it soon became clear that the dam’s dimensions were in no way up to the task. To remedy this, the old dam was raised twice, between 1907 and 1912, and then between 1929 and 1933; the problem was never properly resolved. The 1946 flood almost sent water over the top of the dam, demonstrating its ineffectiveness once and for all. Rather than raising it once again, the decision was taken to build a second, much larger barrier, and that was when design work on the new Aswan Dam began.

Construction of the Aswan Dam

Work on the new Aswan Dam project began in 1952, the year that a Republican coup d’état dethroned King Faruq. Nasser rose to power, and was elected President of the Republic in 1956. In 1953, Egypt began diplomatic work on funding construction of this huge project. First the United States, then the United Kingdom agreed to finance dam construction, earmarking respectively 56 and 14 million dollars. This money was supplemented by funds guaranteed by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. All in all, some 270 million dollars was raised.

Western enthusiasm began to wane as Nasser showed increasing interest in the Soviet Union, which was keen to help with the Aswan dam and financing. In truth, the United States had already begun to get cold feet in 1956, the year Nasser nationalized the French- and British-owned Suez Canal company. This proved to be the point of no return: not long afterwards, the United States decided to pull out of the project altogether, followed by the United Kingdom.

The Aswan Dam construction project, however, suffered no ill effects. Nasser chose to finance the works by using proceeds from nationalization of the Suez Canal, and by drawing on Soviet funds. The USSR also offered welcome technical assistance.

Construction work on the huge barrage officially began in 1960. It was completed in 1970: the dam was inaugurated on July 21 that year.

Safeguarding Archaeological Sites

Construction of the Aswan Dam created an artificial lake 500 kilometres long and 16 kilometres wide, making Lake Nasser the world’s largest man-made lake. Some ninety thousand people were forced to abandon their homes and move elsewhere. The waters didn’t submerge just towns and villages: the man-made lake also overtopped major archaeological sites. As dam construction progressed, a major UNESCO-led international initiative moved local monuments to safer ground. Some of the rescued monuments were given as gifts to the countries that took part in the process. This explains how Italy came into possession of the Temple of Ellesyia, which is on show at the Museo Egizio di Torino. The single biggest removal job was to safeguard the historical site of Abu Simbel. Known as Salini Impregilo at the time, the WeBuild company was part of this project: between 1964 and 1968, more than 2,000 contractors moved the site 300 feet further back (and some 60 feet higher).

The Climatic Impact of Building the Aswan Dam

The giant Aswan Dam covers a significant proportion of Egypt’s electricity needs: originally, it was forecast to cater to 50% of national demand. Today, the dam has 12 generators in operation, and generates annual hydroelectric output of 10,000 gigawatts. However, the barrage’s extensive environmental damage must not be overlooked. The main factor, one that was neither anticipated nor properly calculated for, is silt, which is retained by the weir. Since the dam was built, land has received reduced fertilization from this natural element, triggering a major agricultural crisis and consequent pollution from chemical fertilizers. The dam has also created greater water salinity, leading to the disappearance of many animal species. There is also some evidence of downstream erosion and worsening health problems: Lake Nasser’s irrigation canals and banks make an ideal habitat for Anopheles mosquito, a vector of malaria and other dangerous parasites.