Egypt: Revisiting the High Dam

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 14 Jan 2021

On the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Aswan High Dam, Al-Ahram Weekly revisits its building through oral history, memories, and technical reports


Challenges of the dam

Cairo University professor of water resources Nader Noureddin talks about the challenges of building and operating the Aswan High Dam

On 14 January 1971, Nader Noureddin, today a well-known expert on water resources, was about to turn 16. He joined “practically everyone else” in celebrating the official inauguration of the Aswan High Dam when former president Anwar Al-Sadat, still in his first few months in office, along with former Soviet president Nikolai Podgorny arrived in Aswan for a ceremony celebrating the accomplishment of a project launched on 9 January 1960 by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

The project was completed in July 1970, 10 years after the initiation of its construction. However, Nasser, who in 1964 along with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had watched the diversion of the River Nile to allow for its water to be stored in Lake Nasser behind the dam, died in September 1970 before the official inauguration of the flagship project of his time in office.

For Noureddin, then a secondary school student, with or without the presence of Nasser the High Dam was the mega-project of the period that promised Egypt endless opportunities for development.

A half century later, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Noureddin said that the project had given Egypt the possibility to revolutionise its agriculture and generate much-needed electricity. Like all enthusiasts of the High Dam, he spoke of the increased volume and diversity of crops that had allowed Egypt to come closer to full food security, along with the energy that had allowed for development in parallel with major industrialisation plans.

He added that the damage that had once hit entire villages during flood seasons and the water shortages that had come with droughts had also been ended by the construction of the dam.

However, he also acknowledged the downsides that had come because of the decreasing quality of the soil that had suffered as a result of receding levels of silt, blocked in the reservoir of the dam in north Sudan, known as the Nubian Lake, which is about 20 per cent of Lake Nasser. He accepts that this has meant a growing dependence on chemical fertilisers and the parallel use of pesticides during the summer agricultural season, both of which have added to concerns over soil quality.

 But he argued that “when all is said and done, if only in terms of agriculture and not to mention energy, Egypt has benefited a lot from the High Dam and its reservoir of water over the past 50 years.”

Today, he added, the High Dam is faced with “unprecedented challenges” due to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile that provides Egypt with close to 80 per cent of its annual share of Nile water.

“The GERD is a big challenge for the High Dam in many ways,” Noureddin said, explaining that the GERD “and the subsequent three dams that we know Ethiopia is planning to build on the Blue Nile” will further reduce the volume of silt that Egypt’s agricultural land gets every year. “This is not a small disadvantage, because it will force further dependence on chemical fertilisers that inevitably could have health hazards,” he said.

“It could lead to a situation where we might not have sufficient water for irrigation during droughts, and this will be the case even as we try to rework our agricultural policy to end crops with high water consumption, no matter how essential they are for the Egyptian diet, and expand the use of recycled water,” Noureddin said.

The GERD, he added, was also bound to deny Egypt its “already insufficient share of Nile water, and this could be a serious problem for the High Dam during extended drought years that could last up to 10 years because of global warming, rather than just seven as the case has been up to now.

“This would certainly have a negative impact on the ability of the High Dam to generate its full volume of electricity or worse,” he added. He also said that the ecological impact of the GERD could mean considerable damage to fish in the River Nile and Lake Nasser.

“Obviously, we should have worked on expanding fish species in terms of volume and diversity, but the GERD could make things even worse in this respect,” he argued. “The GERD and the other three dams could significantly reduce most of the benefits of the High Dam that Egypt had to go to such lengths to secure,” he said.

In the 1950s, after being denied Western financing for the project, Nasser opted to nationalise the Suez Canal to generate funds for the project, indirectly bringing about the Tripartite Aggression in 1956. Ultimately, Egypt used a Soviet loan and Soviet know-how and experts to start building the dam.

The construction of the High Dam meant the elimination of entire Nubian villages. Nubians in the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan were displaced to allow for their land to be flooded with reservoir water. Egypt cannot permit such sacrifices to go to waste or to be undermined, Noureddin said. “This is not something that we can allow,” he added.

In addition to the long negotiations that Egypt is going through to minimise damage as a result of the filling and operation of the GERD, the country will also have to work on parallel lines to maximise the benefits of the High Dam.

One way of doing this would be to replace the turbines that have been operating the High Dam with new ones that could increase the electricity generated by the dam. Another would be to work with Sudan and Congo to increase the Nile stream to increase the naturally limited flow of the Nile.

“When we wanted to build the High Dam, it was a big challenge, but we had to do it to pursue development and water security. Today, we are again faced with the need to pursue a mega-project to sustain our path of development and our essential water security, especially as we are already among countries suffering from serious water scarcity,” he said.

“Today, we have an annual shortage of 42 billion cubic metres of water, though we bring in some 20 billion cubic metres through recycling schemes. However, by 2050, with the current population growth rate, we will be 75 billion cubic metres of water short. No amount of water recycling and desalination can make up for this, and so we really need to think big again,” Noureddin concluded

‘The children of the dam’

Historian Youssef Fakhouri has collected testimonies from the men who built the Aswan High Dam as a way of writing its oral history

What was on the minds of the thousands of workers, technicians, and engineers who were involved in the construction of the nation’s grandest project of the 20th century, the Aswan High Dam? How do they now recall a decade of construction that started on 9 January 1960 and came to fruition in July 1970 to allow for the dam’s official inauguration on 15 January 1971?

These are the two questions that historian Youssef Fakhouri tries to answer in a recent publication from the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) called “The High Dam — a Human History” (Al-Tarikh Al-Insani lil-Sad), which came out in 2020 as part of GEBO’s History of the Egyptians series.

In around 150 pages, Fakhouri offers transcriptions of the interviews he held with some of the men who were there to build the High Dam.

As he states in his introduction, it would be hard for anyone to read these accounts of oral history without thinking that all these men, especially the workers and technicians, think of themselves as the “children of the dam.” They also think of the High Dam, or at least they refer to it, as a sort of human being rather than a mega-project built of stone and concrete.

The faith that these men had in the project is hard to miss in their testimonies. It was not necessarily faith inspired by knowledge of what the dam would bring to the nation and the people, but mostly it was faith in a project that Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who comes across in the testimonies as a legend rather than a human being, had decided to champion.

Nasser, the workers who spoke to him told Fakhouri, was the president who gave them as poor and deprived men a sense of pride and worth. Nasser, as one worker said in his testimony, was the man who brought to life the mega-project by getting Egyptian workers rewarded for their labour and not enslaving them into exertion instead.


Indeed, the testimonies show Nasser as having been not just a legendary leader but also a man who inspired followers not just because of his charisma but also because of their love and dedication. Every single testimony has something “emotional” to say about Nasser — the way he saluted workers, the direct communication he had with the chief of operations at the construction site, or even the way he would depart the location leaving behind a lot of positive energy.

In one testimony, Fakhouri quotes the sense of agony of the thousands of workers on site when they learned that Nasser had passed away in September 1970. “People were just screaming and saying ‘father, father, why have you left us?’”

It is impossible to read these testimonies and not think that in many ways those 34,000 men who came to Aswan from all over the country to literally remove mountains and divert the River Nile were only there on a construction mission. They were following Nasser, who was always in sight for them even when he was not present.

Nasser, according to the testimony of the engineers and politicians involved in this mega-project, was certainly very involved in the making of the High Dam. He was also, and perhaps untypically, willing to delegate authority to Sedki Suleiman, the minister supervising the building of the High Dam.

He was not willing to trust the private sector to do the construction work, however. He forced the partial nationalisation of the Arab Contractors Company to make sure that the state was in control of the project.

The testimonies that Fakhouri has collected also show the location of the construction site as a place of almost unstoppable commotion. Nothing seemed to stop the momentum that was initiated when Nasser gave the go ahead on 9 January 1960 — not the 1967 defeat, not the tragic deaths of some of the men who lost their lives during the construction, and not even the tragic death of Nasser himself.

It seemed that everybody believed that the work could not be stopped and that the shifts had to continue to meet the countdown that specified 10 years for the completion of the project.

The testimonies show a place where commitment prevailed over everything else. There were problems, fights, and even abuse at times. However, what was dominant was the commitment of all on the site to get the dam done. Some men joined the project to get a job, and some because they were assigned to do so. However, they all believed that they were on a national mission of defiance and pride.

This is why they all loved to hear the hekayet shaab, “the story of a people”, in which singer Abdel-Halim Hafez tells the story of the construction of the High Dam.

For those who lived to remember and to tell the story, the dam was built by the hard work and the bare hands of Egyptian men. It was built over the ruins of submerged villages and the bodies of men who died on the site. Above all, it was built on the faith that it would bring a better tomorrow for the entire nation.

The dam, the city, and the country

Resident of Aswan and retired diplomat Ahmed Wahish talks about what the Aswan High Dam meant to his hometown and to the nation as a whole

In 1964, Ahmed Wahish was planning to move from his hometown of Aswan to Cairo to start a career with the foreign service.

Before heading from the south of the country to the capital, Wahish decided to join his brother, a correspondent for the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, in attending one of the major events of the time that took place in this once-secluded city.

It was the day that late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser had arrived in Aswan with former Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev to oversee the diversion of the path of the River Nile to allow for its water to be kept in a lake to be built in the south of Egypt and north of Sudan.

“It was a big day, perhaps as big a day as the launch of the construction of the High Dam in January 1960,” Wahish recalled in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. By 1964, he said, it was not just the path of the River Nile that had been diverted but also the norms of life in Aswan as a whole.

“This was once a very calm city. It used to be so calm and so safe that people could leave their shops unattended to go to perform the prayers without having to worry about any possible theft. In fact, the population of Aswan was not big, and it would be no exaggeration to say that most people knew one another,” he recalled.


But then came the big day of 9 January 1960 when Nasser arrived to give the go ahead to the construction of the biggest project of his rule. “There was a huge change that hit the city,” Wahish recalled.

In the four years between the launch of the project and the diversion of the path of the Nile, he said, Aswan was no longer his childhood city. His beloved sanctuary of tranquility was invaded by thousands of workers from all over the country, essentially from northern Upper Egypt governorates and from the Soviet Union, which provided experts for the mega-project.

“We hardly had any radio broadcasts, and hardly anyone had a TV. There was only one train that would come to the city, and when it left at 5pm that would be the end of any contact with the rest of the country until 10 or 11am the following day when the train arrived to bring the daily papers,” Wahish recalled.

Aswan was hardly a place to attract people from the outside. There would have been the winter tourists that came every year in the weeks between Christmas and Easter, but that would have been all.

For Wahish, all this changed, and suddenly Aswan was a new city with so many more people who came with their own ways of living and also the problems that can come with mixed groups. A city that had never known crime started to record cases of theft and robbery.

“People often talk about the [displacement] of the Nubians, but they don’t talk much about what the High Dam meant to Aswan. The city was completely changed by the presence of these thousands of workers and engineers and foreign experts. It became a big city that got a lot of attention. Nasser would visit, and people would gather to see his motorcade passing by,” he said.

This change might not have been to the liking of the original residents of the city who cherished their peace. However, as Wahish said, people were willing to compromise their serenity because they believed the High Dam was in the interests of the country.

“At the time, there was a debate on the possible negative impacts of the dam, mostly technical in character. However, the dominant narrative was that the High Dam was the hope for development, and we were all proud that we were building the High Dam,” he said.

During the decade that followed the 9 January 1960 start of the construction of this 4,000-metre dam, Aswan was not the city of its people but rather the city of the High Dam.

“The city catered to the project. Housing units and entertainment spaces were built for the workers and engineers and foreign experts. New services and commodities were provided, and the city became a hub with all eyes on this project that Egypt had to go through so much, including [the Suez] War, to have,” Wahish said.

At the foreign service, Wahish knew that the High Dam was also much more than a mega-project. It was “also about national liberation. It was about taking control of our own wealth and our own destiny. It was about Egypt’s leadership not just of its own region, but also across Africa and Asia, and as a leading nation of the national-liberation movement,” he added.

Securing support for Egypt’s commitment to construct the High Dam was something that Wahish as a young diplomat worked for. “But, to be honest, all around the Third World there was a great deal of support anyway, and in fact there was huge enthusiasm for Egypt’s commitment to build the High Dam. Nasser was acknowledged as a Third World leader, and all the other leaders of the movement for national liberation supported him,” he added.

Upon the official inauguration of the High Dam in the early days of 1971, Wahish was serving in Colombo in the trade section of the Egyptian embassy in this commercial hub of Sri Lanka. There he saw many rejoice over the official inauguration of this project.

“Nasser had a close relation with [prime minister of Sri Lanka Sirimavo] Bandaranaike just as he did with other Third World leaders. They shared the hopes and dreams of independence and development,” he said.

This week, as he was reading press material to mark the 50th anniversary of the official inauguration of the High Dam, Wahish, now retired, was not thinking about the way the project changed his city or the impact it had on the lives of the Nubians who also had to lose a tranquil life in a more consequential way.

 “This is all in the past and long ago. The story now is about the GERD and its possible negative impacts on the High Dam,” he said.

Wahish has been following the tough negotiations Egypt has been going through over the past five years to make sure its annual share of Nile water is not subject to devastating harm.

“We cannot afford to lose water because if we do this will affect the turbines of the High Dam and the irrigation of farmland. We just cannot let this happen. We cannot reduce the efficiency of the High Dam. There were so many sacrifices made in the construction of the dam, and we cannot let them go to waste,” he said.

“The dam was and still is very important for the country, and we have to make sure that it is not harmed by the GERD.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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