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March 20, 2019

The Aswan High Dam: Egypt triumph over imperial bullying

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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On January 9, 1960 construction had just begun on the High Dam project south of Aswan in my native Egypt. I had celebrated my 16th birthday just a couple of weeks earlier on December 24, 1959. I was finishing my last year of high school and preparing to study engineering at Cairo University. Growing up during the 1950s, I was fully aware of country's hard struggle against the ugly imperial powers of the world.

First, I witnessed the reluctant withdrawal of British troops, finally ending their occupation of my country (1882-1956), a long 74 years of brutal human oppression and exploitation of our natural resources. Throughout that time, this imperialist super-power relentlessly sought to “divide and conquer” Egypt by sowing seeds of hatred between Muslims and Christians where none had existed previously.

Secondly, I closely followed the career of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his efforts to develop and renew our country. His most ambitious project was to build a vast dam south of Aswan to control the annual Nile River floods and generate electricity.

In 1956, when Nasser applied to the World Bank for a loan and was turned down due to US influence, he nationalized the Suez Canal to generate the necessary funds. France, Britain and Israel were outraged and responded by attacking Egypt and occupying the Suez Canal region and Sinai Peninsula.

World pressure and unanticipated Egyptian resistance forced the invaders to withdraw. Nasser then turned to the former Soviet Union for financial and technical help to build what would become the world's largest dam of its time. Fortunately, he was successful.

In February 2019, along with hundreds of teen-aged Egyptian students, I visited the Aswan High Dam and the monument built nearby to honor the friendship between Egypt and the USSR which made the project a reality. As I observed the students learning about this engineering miracle, I hoped that their generation will remember and appreciate the sacrifices made by their forebears to create it against truly daunting odds.

As one of those forebears, I remember how all of Egypt stood by Nasser, supporting him in his struggle against the ugly opposition by super-powers of the day. Back then, I joined my compatriots in singing a classic song by the legendary poet, Abdul Halim Hafiz:

Olna ha nebny wahna banena al sad al alee. Ya istmar baninah beidanah al sad al alee. “We have said we will build the High Dam and we did. Oh imperialists, we built it for our people.”

The High Dam is not the first major water control project on the Nile. It is actually situated six-and-half kilometers downstream from the original 1902 Aswan Dam which was enlarged and expanded several times during the first part of the 20th century. But, as its name implies, it is the largest and most imposing. It took 30,000 Egyptians working day and night for a full decade under the supervision of 2,000 Egyptian engineers to complete it. The design was a joint effort between Egypt and the USSR.

To create this engineering wonder, 17 million cubic meters of rock were excavated and 43 million cubic meters of construction material used. The resulting structure is 3,600 meters long, 114 meters high and 980 meters wide at the base.

Diversion tunnels on the western riverbank were hewn out of solid granite to a diameter of 16.5 meters and length of 1,950 meters.

The eastern bank holds 12 120,000 HP turbines that produce 10 billion KWH of hydroelectricity annually. The project created a huge reservoir called Lake Nasser, which at 157 billion cubic meters, is the world's largest artificial lake. It extends more than 500 kilometers, 150 of which are in Sudan, with an average width of 10 kilometers.

With the High Dam’s completion, regular and reliable crop irrigation was possible for the first time and the effects were almost immediate. Egypt's cultivated land increased by 20% and harvests went from one crop a year to three. Between 1952 and 1991 wheat yields tripled, due in large part to increased water access all year round.

Thanks to the dam, most of the 32 cubic kms of freshwater (almost 40% of the Nile’s average flow) previously lost to the sea every year could now be put to beneficial use. While about 10 cubic kms of the water held back in Lake Nasser is lost through evaporation, there are still 22 cubic kms more available for irrigation than there were before the dam was built.

The High Dam also benefits areas far north of Aswan. In Cairo and the Delta, for example, the dangers of flooding are greatly minimized, reducing property losses and making the Nile permanently navigable.

As well, many villages along the Nile had access to electricity for the first time. Better regulation of the river levels upstream also improved the efficiency of the old Aswan hydro power stations.

In 1972–73 and 1983–87 the old and new Aswan dams protected Egypt from recurring droughts that devastated much of East and West Africa.

With the extension of irrigable lands, some 500,000 families were able to settle there and cultivate more crops, especially rice and sugar cane whose production dramatically increased.

In addition, about 1 million feddan (420,000 hectares), mostly in Upper Egypt, were converted from natural flood irrigation which allowed only one crop per year, to perennial irrigation that produced two or more crops annually. On previously irrigated lands, agricultural yields increased because water remained available at traditional low-flow periods.

The building of the Aswan High Dam is a textbook case of how a poor nation struggled to build a better economic future and food security for its people in the face of opposition and intimidation by rich and powerful enemies.

Egyptians understand well both the human triumph and potential environmental costs of creating a new and contained role for the ancient Nile. But the country stood up and took ownership of its destiny at a critical time in history by seeing the High Dam project through.

It just goes to show that in the end, the underdog with the biggest dream can win.

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