Built across the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt between 1960 and 1970, the construction was based on the successes of a lower dam built in the region. The goal was to maximize the utilization of the river while controlling flooding, improving water storage, and encouraging hydroelectricity development.
Before the dam was built, even with the old embankment dam in place, flooding of the Nile occurred in the late summer months. In past generations, this process brought needed nutrients to the soil, which made the region ideal for farming. Since the flooding was variable, low-water years could produce devastating famine and drought.
With Egypt’s population growing and technology access improving, the need to support farmlands, stabilize food cycles, and offer cash crops to the global export market facilitated the need for this dam.
Designed by the Hydroproject Institute based in Moscow, these are the pros and cons of the Aswan High Dam to consider.
List of the Pros of the Aswan High Dam
1. It provides a majority of the energy needs of Egypt.
During a typical operational year for the Aswan High Dam, about 15% of the total electrical supply available to the country comes through this project. When it first came online, almost half of the available electric power came through the dam. The electricity generated by the dam is environmentally friendly, offers predictable cost structures, and is cost-effective to maintain. At total capacity, the 12 generators with the dam are each rated for 175 MW, which means the facility can produce 2.1 GW of electrical energy.
2. The Nile River is now much easier to navigate.
With the waters of the river controlled, navigating along the Nile is easier than arguably ever before in history. Major shipping lanes throughout the Nile Valley are now possible because of water control. That makes Egypt an important shipping nation now that more ports are available to access. New business opportunities for imports and exports are now possible, creating a better economic climate for the local population.
3. It improves the safety of water-based professions.
The Nile River has long been a source of fishing and early aquaculture for the Egyptian civilization. Before the Aswan High Dam was built, people working in marine professions around the world were faced with daunting wildlife problems. Nile crocodiles who eat fish could deviate from the menu to eat humans. Even today, about 200 deaths each year are attributed to these animals.
The hippopotamus is native to the area and may have been worshipped by the ancient Egyptian cultures. They’re also ferocious, with early populations believing the animal held special spiritual powers. King Tut may have even been killed by one.
Then there is the threat of mosquitoes. With more standing water available because of Lake Nasser, the threat of malaria is quite high.
4. The dam improved water access for all Egyptians.
Despite the displacement issues involved with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the effort did improve annual water access to the country. Before the formation of Lake Nasser, annual water quotas for the region were 48 cubic kilometers. In the 40+ years after the dam was brought online, the annual water quota improved to 55.5 cubic kilometers. With better water availability, the impact of drought years on the Nile valley is reduced, which means there are fewer risks of food insecurity, health issues, and dehydration.
5. It allowed Egypt to reclaim lands for use.
Although the formation of Lake Nasser did cause land loss which required resettlement, there were over 2 million acres of land reclaimed by Egypt with the additional water availability. Despite river degradation downstream with changes to sediment flows, there are more acres being successfully farmed after the dam’s construction compared to the agricultural activities happening before it.
6. There are reduced issues of schistosomiasis because of the dam.
This disease, caused by parasitic flatworms, infect the intestines or the urinary tract. Symptoms include blood in the urine, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and abdominal fluid collection. Long-term infections may cause bladder cancer, liver damage, and kidney failure. After 15 years of dam closure with the Nile, some issues of this disease have disappeared from upper Egypt altogether. Improved irrigation practices to reduce snail influences have promoted reductions of this disease too.
7. Downstream levels of the Nile have been relatively unaffected.
When the Aswan High Dam was first constructed, the general consensus was that the river would lose up to 10 meters in river-bed levels downstream. The actual drop was just 0.7 meters, with some areas seeing a drop of just 0.3 meters. Although the red-brick construction industry that used sediments has been negatively affected, the actual river process has remained relatively unchanged except for the sediment issue.
8. New industries came to take the place of affected industries.
Instead of the traditional red bricks formed in the region for construction, manufacturers and producers are now creating a sand-clay mixture using mud-based technologies for bricks. With the new techniques, the sediment build-ups offer the possibility of new industries to supply jobs that disappeared with the construction of the Aswan High Dam. New fishing industries, agricultural jobs, and service industry positions became available because of this project as well. It has forced some households to change what they do, but it has kept economic opportunities around.
List of the Cons of the Aswan High Dam
1. The project forced over 1 million people to be relocated.
When Lake Nasser flooded lower Nubia because of the Aswan High Dam, up to 120,000 people had to be resettled in Egypt and Sudan. Another 70,000 Nubians in Sudan were resettled from Wadi Halfa, where their new home had such a different climate that they struggled to adapt. They were eventually settled into 25 planned villages. Another 50,000 Nubians were moved up to 10 kilometers from the Nile into new village units as well.
2. Access to critical archaeological sites was limited by the project.
After the completion of the Aswan High Dam, over 20 different architectural complexes and monuments were threatened by the spillages from Lake Nassar. Several of the sites had to be moved through UNESCO efforts to preserve them, including the Abu Simbel temples and the statue of Ramses the Great that was at the Great Temple. Not only did the dam project cost over $1 billion to complete, millions more were spent to save the “major” artifacts. Many of the Nubian civilization archaeological sites were lost to the reservoir which would eventually become a new lake.
3. It changed how sediments flow to the sea.
The Nile River famously flooded its surrounding valley each year to provide cropland assistance to local farmers. Even in the Old Testament of the Bible, farming practices are discussed in Egypt in some of the early stories. This ancient river provided a sediment filter that allowed life to take advantage of its nutrients. Over 124 million tons would be brought to the Mediterranean Sea each year to promote marine life. Now 98% of that movement is trapped behind the Aswan High Dam.
4. Fertilization issues are now present in Egypt.
Now that the silt sits behind the dam, there are concerns about being able to farm in the Nile Valley. Nitrogen fertilizers are required to help the crops grow now, with lime-nitrate the most common method used to provide nutrients to the soil. Although the two-mile dam’s design was to improve farming consistency, the agriculture changes have left potential hazards that were unexpected to the original designers.
5. It encourages coastline erosion around the delta.
Because there is more water pressure around the Aswan High Dam at the delta than before when the waters flowed freely, the shoreline in the region experiences higher levels of erosion. At the current rate, the coast erodes by up to 575 feet per year. Even on a year of minimal erosion, over 400 feet is lost. That shift requires Egypt to spend more on reinforcing the lakeshore and the high-value properties around the region.
6. Local groundwater tables are influenced by salinity.
Water salinity has become an issue as well, making it difficult to use the waters around the dam to irrigate the fields because the nature of the liquid has changed. Before the dam was built, the groundwater levels fluctuated in the Nile valley by up to 9 meters per year. When the summer evaporation began, the water was too deep to allow dissolved salts to be pulled to the surface. Without the same flooding fluctuations, soil salinity increases created negative impacts on local crop yields.
To correct this problem, subsurface drainage systems were installed over the course of 30 years at the cost of more than $3 billion.
7. Sediment collections are lowering the reservoir’s water storage capacity.
The expected water storage capacity of Lake Nasser is 162 cubic kilometers, with 31 cubic kilometers of dead storage at the bottom of the lake. In less than three centuries, if nothing is done about the sediment issue, the annual load will fill up the entire dead storage volume currently available.
8. Mediterranean sardine captures are down by 50%.
In 1962, the sardine catch off the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean was 18,000 tons. By 1968, the total catch was just 460 tons. By 1992, the biomass recovered enough to produce a catch of nearly 8,600 tons in 1992. The reason why the sardines moved away from their usual grounds is unknown, but the changes happened at the same time the effects of the Aswan High Dam were being studied. Nature does have the ability to adapt, especially when given enough time, but in this circumstance, a full recovery has still not occurred.
9. It turned the water supply into a political tool.
With access to water improved for all of Egypt at the expense of a few, the Nile river was turned into a political tool more than ever before in history. Changes to how the water flows forced local farmers to begin depending on product access and irrigation rights to grow crops instead of relying on the natural cycles of the river. That increases the cost of crops, limits viable farmlands, and gives the local government more pressure to exert on people because they control access to their livelihood.
The pros and cons of the Aswan High Dam are often up for debate because the cause-and-effect of its presence is not entirely known. Sardine catches in the Mediterranean are down after the installation of the dam, but it also supports more water availability and electricity for the country. More algae now grows on the Nile, which increases the cost of drinking water treatments, but irrigation costs are down. More time is needed to determine how effective or ineffective this project will be.