Aswan High Dam

Aswan High Dam

Aswan is a city on the first cataract of the Nile in Egypt. Two dams straddle the river at this point: the newer Aswan High Dam, and the older Aswan Dam or Aswan Low Dam. Before impoundment the Nile River would flood each year during summer, as waters from East Africa flowed down the river. These floods brought nutrients and minerals that made the soil around the Nile fertile and ideal for farming. As the population along the river grew, there came a need to control the flood waters to protect farmland and cotton fields. In a high-water year, the whole crop may be entirely wiped out, while in a low-water year there was widespread drought and famine. The aim of this water project was to prevent the river's flooding, generate electricity and provide water for agriculture.

The British began construction of the first dam in 1899. Construction lasted until 1902. It was opened in December 10, 1902. The project was designed by Sir William Willcocks and involved several eminent engineers including Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Aird, whose firm, John Aird & Company, was the main contractor. A gravity dam, it was 1,900 m long and 54 m high. The initial design was soon found to be inadequate and the height of the dam was raised in two phases, 1907–1912 and 1929–1933.

When the dam almost overflowed in 1946, it was decided that rather than raise the dam a third time, a second dam would be built 6 km upriver (about 4 miles). Proper planning began in 1952, just after the Egyptian Revolution led by the Free Officers, of whom Nasser was to become leader. At first the USA and Britain were to help finance construction with a loan of USD $270 million in return for Nasser's leadership on resolving the Arab-Israeli Conflict. However both nations cancelled the offer in July 1956 as part of the secret US-led 'OMEGA' policy to marginalize Nasser. A secret Egyptian arms agreement with Czechoslovakia (Eastern Bloc) and Egyptian recognition of the People's Republic of China are cited as possible reasons.

The Soviet Union stepped in 1958 and funded the dam project as part of the struggle for influence in Africa during the Cold War, and possibly a third of the cost of the dam was paid for as a long term investment in the region. The Soviets also provided technicians and heavy machinery. The enormous rock and clay dam was designed by the Russian Zuk Hydroproject Institute.

Construction began in 1960. The High Dam, as-Sad al-'Aali, was completed on July 21, 1970, with the first stage finished in 1964. The reservoir began filling in 1964 while the dam was still under construction and first reached capacity in 1976. The reservoir raised concerns from archaeologists and a rescue operation was begun in 1960 under UNESCO. Sites were surveyed and excavated and 24 major monuments were moved to safer locations (see Abu Simbel) or granted to countries that helped with the works (such as the Debod temple in Madrid and the Temple of Dendur in New York).

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