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Located on the Nile River, just north of the border between Egypt and the Sudan, the Aswan High Dam slows the flow of the Nile River northward through Egypt. Finished in 1971, the dam controls flooding, insures a reliable and regular water supply to irrigated farms along the river, and provides hydroelectric power and water for human consumption and industrial use to the rapidly expanding populations of Cairo and other cities of Egypt. Behind the dam lies Lake Nasser, which contains some 200 billion cubic feet of water and is about 500 kilometers long and, on average, 12 kilometers wide.
Like most major dam projects, the Aswan High Dam has attracted many critics since the initial announcement of the plans for its construction. Environmentalists have worried about the effects on the river’s ecological balance. Cultural observers have expressed concerns about the effects on people displaced by Lake Nasser. And antiquarians have bemoaned the loss of identified but as yet unexcavated archaeological sites.
In most years, the annual flooding of the Nile was a boon to Egyptian farmers. But at regular intervals, heavy floods washed away their crops, or drought dramatically lowered the river level and made it very difficult for farmers to fill their irrigation canals. The dam permits controlled and year-round releases of water. As a result, Egyptian farmers have been able to increase their output from one to three harvests per year, depending on the crop.
In addition, more than 950,000 million acres of newly irrigated land have been brought into production. On the downside, the dam has encouraged urban growth, which has eliminated about 600,000 acres formerly devoted to agriculture. Moreover, the controlled flow of the river has reduced the delta-building that formerly resulted from the river’s heavy seasonal flooding. In fact, the reduction in the silt carried seaward by the Nile has resulted in increased erosion of the existing delta and adjacent shoreline. Along the river below the dam, the water table has risen, causing a buildup of salts in the soil that reduces fertility.
The construction of the dam has meant the demise of the sardine fishing industry in the Nile, but increased catches in the waters off the Nile delta have been attributed to concentrations of nutrients caused by the dam, and the development of a major fishing industry in Lake Nasser remains a promising if as yet unrealized possibility. The dam has dramatically increased the growth of vegetation in downstream stretches of the river, but that vegetation has been harvested for agricultural use as compost.
Public Health Effects
The dam has produced similarly mixed effects in terms of public health. On the one hand, the project has been a public-health blessing, ensuring that Egypt’s population will have the sort of reliable water supply that is the most important factor in reducing the incidence of diseases-such as enteritis and hepatitis-that plague Third World nations and reduce their economic output. On the other hand, the expansion of perennial irrigation following the construction of the dam facilitated the spread of the gambiae mosquito, a key carrier of malaria, which became the focus of a resulting national health campaign. So too, the concentration of this water supply in one place also increases the incidence of other waterborne parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis.
Ironically, the people most likely to experience increased incidences of these parasitic diseases have been the 100,000 Nubians who were forced to relocate when Lake Nasser covered the sites of their former villages and towns. In the end, the most dire predictions about increases in waterborne parasitic diseases have not proven accurate-in large part because the dam has made possible the increased development of water treatment plants and the broader availability of safe drinking water. But the tradeoffs of the Aswan High Dam demonstrate that while large-scale technologies solve environmental problems, their unintended consequences inevitably cause some as well.
- Hussein M. Fahim, Egyptian Nubians: Resettlement and Years of Coping (University of Utah Press, 1983);
- Hussein M. Fahim, Dams, People and Development: The Aswan High Dam Case (Pergamon, 1981);
- Leslie Greener, High Dam over Nubia (Cassell, 1962);
- Tom Little, High Dam at Aswan: The Subjugation of the Nile (John Day, 1965);
- Dale Whittington and Giorgio Guariso, Water Management Models in Practice: A Case Study of the Aswan High Dam (Elsevier Scientific, 1983).