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Fighting the Rising Tide - Controlling the Nile River

Deep in the heart of Upper Egypt lies the country's most colossal monument... a monument that makes the enormous Temple at Karnak and Hatshepsut's towering obelisk seem miniscule... yes, even the Great Pyramids of Giza seem tiny in comparison... no, this monument is not a great house of worship or a tomb built to carry a great leader in to the afterworld...unlike all the other famous monuments of Egypt, this one wasn't built thousands or even hundreds of years ago...

So what is Egypt's largest monument you might be wondering? Egypt's biggest, most colossal monument is, in fact, a dam! The Sadd al-Ali dam, also known as the Aswan High Dam is the masterpiece of 20th century Egyptian rulers - a contemporary attempt at leaving a mark in the history books through a grand display of stone and steel. Jasmine and I went to visit this gigantic engineering marvel, which is built of 18 times more stone than the Great Pyramids of Giza. Unfortunately the Dam itself and the large reservoir behind it are quite boring to look at - just a pile of concrete and a lot of big electrical power machines - but I'm still glad we went. As dull as it may be to visit, its history is fascinating and controversial.

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Kavitha at the Aswan Dam
In his book Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, John Waterbury says "The Aswan High Dam is but the most recent (and surely not the last) manifestation of Egypt's struggle to dominate rather than coexist with the Nile Valley." As we've already learned, the Nile has been the backbone of Egyptian civilization since the beginning of time. In the middle of a harsh desert landscape, the Nile has allowed for life, transportation, and communication. This mighty river held the power to make or break mighty empires, and the power to control it continues to dictate Egypt's future as a nation.

We've looked at the fascinating history of Egypt through the rise and fall of dynasties and the reigns of mighty Pharaohs and foreign conquerors. Now, let's look at Egypt's history from a different perspective: let's trace the ongoing struggle between Egyptians and the Nile River--the attempts to dominate its wild spirit to allow for human expansion and gain.

Vocabulary Box

obelisk - a pillar that gradually tapers and ends in a pyramid
floodplain - level land that may be submerged by floodwaters
irrigate - to supply with water by artificial means
perennial - present at all seasons of the year; recurrent, continual
arable - fit for or used for the growing of crops
water table - the top line of ground covered with water (usually underground)
inundation - flooding

Before 3,400 BC, the Nile Valley mostly consisted of small independent communities spread out up and down the river. These communities lived above the floodplain and were dependent on the Nile's late summer flood to provide them with enough water to grow what they needed for the whole year. Since their lands were dry for nine months of the year, the small amount of food they produced could only support small populations. Around 3,400 BC though, the population started growing due to the development of a new type of irrigation- basin irrigation. Basin irrigation involved teams of villages working together digging canals during the flood season and directing water into large basins, which in turn were connected to sub-basins downstream. Water could sit in these basins for a few months after the flood and seep in to the dry soil, allowing the cultivation of crops on formerly barren lands. It was because these villages were already working together to control the waters of the Nile, that the legendary pharaoh Menes was finally able to unite Upper and Lower Egypt around 3,000 BC. (I wonder why it is that we always learn history as a record of victorious rulers rather than as a record of how people lived?)

The system of basin irrigation lasted over 5,000 years and "established a remarkable ecological balance at moderate levels of population density" (Waterbury). When this system was finally replaced at the beginning of the nineteenth century under Ottoman rule, the population of Egypt was only 4.23 million - fifteen times less than what it is now!

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Once temples and villages, now electricity
The Ottomans brought in perennial irrigation - more sophisticated systems to control the Nile so that water could flow in canals throughout the year. It seems like a simple enough transition, but the change from basin irrigation had very significant impacts on Egypt. The new system required more order from a centralized ruling authority, thus creating a more powerful state. A more powerful state needs more people working for the state like administrators, soldiers, officers, and politicians. This leaves less people directly working for subsistence off the land and creates a whole new set of motivating factors. The more powerful state needs more revenues and surplus agriculture to focus efforts on building the state even bigger. By controlling the Nile's flow throughout the year, Egypt was able to increase its arable land, allowing the country to support a larger population.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Egypt's population had risen to 10 million, and Egypt needed to cultivate even more land to support it. The Ottoman's perennial irrigation system was no longer sufficient, so, between 1898 and 1902, Egypt's new rulers, the British, constructed the Aswan Dam above the First Nile Cataract. Thus, after millions of years of flooding, the Nile would flood no more. The Aswan Dam was hailed as a savior - greatly increasing the area of cultivatable land and also providing the country with most of its hydroelectric power.

Unfortunately, all too often progress goes hand in hand with expansion. By 1960 the Egyptian population had increased to 26 million. Even the granite dam that was powerful enough to control the flow of the mighty Nile could no longer meet the country's needs. The newly independent Egypt, under Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, set out to construct an even larger dam a few miles south of the British built one. Nasser, who was against dependence on powerful Western nations, set off alarms at the magnitude of the project he was suggesting. The U.S., England, and the World Bank refused funding they had initially offered, so Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for aid.

After 11 long years, the High Dam was finally completed in 1971. The colossal High Dam increased Egypt's cultivatable land by 30%, doubled the country's power supply, and created a reservoir that can store water over a number of years so that a high or low annual flood can be regulated at all times. The reservoir, known in Egypt as Lake Nasser, is the world's largest man made lake and has raised the water table in the Sahara as far away as Algeria.

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This temple was moved brick by brick out of the way of the dam's waters
Unfortunately all these advances did not come without a dear price to pay. Many valuable and irreplaceable antiquities met their doom with the creation of Lake Nasser. UNESCO organized an international project to save some of the more important temples and monuments before they were drowned forever, so temple complexes like Philae, Kalabsha and Abu Simbel were dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt on higher ground in Egypt. But a much more devastating effect of the rising reservoir was the inundation of Nubian lands. Over 40,000 Nubians and Sudanese were forced to relocate off the land their ancestors had called home for over 5,000 years. Over 45 Nubian villages were washed away along the banks of the Nile south of Aswan.

Egypt's history and relationship with the Nile River can be traced through spurts in population growth. With each increase in population, those in power have come up with a new, more expensive, more complex, and more risky endeavor to control their life-giving river. "Humanity's attempt to alter nature in the Nile Valley so as to sustain more life has led to a quiet, growing revolt by mother earth." (Kaplan). As if the lost temples and villages and displaced peoples weren't enough, the Aswan High Dam could be creating even greater threats.

Ever since perennial irrigation replaced basin irrigation, salinization, a process where excess salts accumulate in the soil, has been a problem in Egyptian agriculture. By 1980, salinization problems affected half of Egypt's arable land. Today, deteriorating soil fertility has lowered the country's agricultural production by about 10%. Artificial fertilizers now have to be used because the dam hinders the flow of silt that was critical to the Nile Valley's fertility. Another serious problem is the Dam's affects on the Nile delta. Since the Nile's annual flooding has been stopped, the river is no longer able to carry off excess sediment into the Mediterranean, and now the delta is beginning to sink under its own weight and its coastline is eroding faster than ever before. Perhaps the greatest threat the Dam poses is that should it ever break or be sabotaged, the power of the backed up water could sweep most of the country into the Mediterranean!

The Aswan High Dam is just another example of people's age-old struggle to dominate and control nature. Some of the greatest civilizations to ever walk this planet have collapsed and disappeared because of misusing and abusing the earth's delicate resources.

Let history be something we can learn from.

Today's fast growing, fast paced society is also unfortunately fast forgetting. As we head into the new millennium we are walking a tightrope... trying to balance our consuming ways and growing population with the fragile ecosystems we depend on... let's just hope Mother Earth doesn't revolt before we get our act together!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

References:Kaplan, Robert D. The Ends of the Earth. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Waterbury, John. Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1979.


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Monica - When Does Flirting Become Hurting?
Team - The Story of the Suez Canal

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