Building the World

High Dam at Aswan, Egypt

Aerial of the High Dam at Aswan, from NASA at

The legendary Nile, river of Cleopatra, has enchanted the world. The Nile has sustained Egypt for years, as it has always been a source of transport, commerce, irrigation, and inspiration. However, floods were a frequent threat, choked in turn by alternating times of drought. Interventions in the Nile can be traced back to 1843. But the most dramatic harnessing of the mighty river went far beyond national traditions of the pyramids and pharaohs when Egypt partnered with Soviet Russia to build the High Dam at Aswan. A new word entered modern parlance: hydropolitics.


Nikita Kruschev, from Time Magazine at

Lexicons added the term “hydropolitics” since the High Dam at Aswan. There are two dams: the Low Dam built by Mohammed Ali, founder of modern Egypt, in 1843; and the High Dam built between 1960 and 1970. When the High Dam was bid on there was a long line of possible suitors. First, of course, the Egyptians, but then jointly by the British and Americans, followed by the World Bank. Having had a difficult experience during the Suez Canal’s nationalization, the World Bank demurred. Instead, the United States initially offered and then declined the project; the eventual winner of the contract was Soviet Russia. Nikita Khrushchev was soon welcomed by Nasser; his visit marked the first Soviet general secretary to set foot in an Arab country. But even before Russia, others envied the Nile’s power. Napoleon observed, at a time when the French were occupying Egypt, “If I were to rule a country like Egypt, not a single drop of water would be allowed to flow into the Mediterranean.” (Biswas, 25; Building the World, 612).

Politics on the Nile continue today. According to the Earth Policy Institute, Saudi Arabia may be tapping the Nile. Institute president Lester Brown stated: “The Saudis tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat, making themselves self-sufficient.” But now almost all that water is gone, and Saudis are investing in farmland in Ethiopia and Sudan, but that means they will draw more Nile water for irrigation away from Egypt.


There are two dams on the Nile River at Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. The first site developed, in 1843 by Albanian founder of modern-day Egypt, Mohammed Ali, was a barrage (an artificial obstruction to encourage irrigation) to improve agriculture. While the Nile is revered as a fountain of life, only 4% of Egypt’s soil was nourished by the river, leaving the rest of the country a desert. As the population of Egypt expanded, demands upon the Nile grew. From 1898 to 1902, the Egyptians and British collaborated to build what is now referred to as the Aswan Low Dam. Built with the dual purpose of irrigation and power generation, this Low Dam measures 7,000 feet (2,100 meters)long; after additional heightening in 1907-12 and again from 1929-34, it is now 125 feet (38 meters) high. In comparison, Itaipu is 55 meters high. The Low Dam has 180 sluices through which silt-laden water passes – the design proved to be a boon to the land near the riverbanks. The High Dam is located four miles (six kilometers) upstream. Made of earth and rock fill on a core of cement and clay, the dam is 3,000 feet (about 1,000 meters) thick at the base and 130 feet (40 meters) at the top. The reservoir is one of the world’s largest with capacity of 131 million acre feet or MAF (162 billion cubic meters) of water.


Results brought many benefits including electricity for every city, town, and village in Egypt, as well as agricultural improvements through irrigation, fewer disastrous floods, and better navigation on the Nile. But there were consequences. The portion of the Nile downstream lost much of its power, something of concern to Brazilians living near the site of Belo Monte, Itaipu’s successor. Prior to the dam’s construction, the river brought along 12 million tons of rich silt full of nutrients, but after completion, silt now collects instead behind the dam. Whereas the silt used to bring fertilizing nitrogen to the land, now nutrients must be added via lime-nitrate. Salinity is also a major problem.

High Aswan Dam, from University of Michigan at


Flooding to create a reservoir entails difficult decisions regarding relocation. Such was the case when developing the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the United States and in China’s Three Gorges Dam. But Egypt faced a particularly difficult situation, in part due to its history. Land of the Pharaohs, pyramids, and the ancient Nubians, Egypt struggled to balance history and innovation; areas designated for flooding contained treasures. Before flooding, Egyptian museums and government agencies mounted one of the most massive relocation programs of historic objects in history. Egyptian tombs were relocated, temples, monuments and relics were excavated and moved. In the site of Abu Simbel, the cost of transferring objects mounted to over US$40 million. But even after the effort to save Egyptian treasures, many were lost in the flooding of what would become Lake Nasser. And not just objects were destroyed (or perhaps are waiting to be discovered) but 150 islands were now just 36.


Whether Australia’s Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric, Egypt’s Aswan or Brazil and Paraguay’s Itaipú, dams eventually cause salinity. In California, the Imperial Valley now suffers from increased salinity in its irrigated soil. In the Netherlands the same problem is seen. The Nile River also suffers. In fact, 40% of all irrigated land in the world is currently damaged by salinity. The World Bank, who did not get involved in the High Dam at Aswan, has built more dams than any other organization in history: 527 dam-construction loans totally US$58billion (in 1993 dollars). Altogether, more than 604 dams have been built in 93 countries with World Bank funding. In the late 1990’s, the Manibeli Declaration, endorsed by groups from 44 countries and many nongovernmental organizations, suggested a halt to World Bank funding of more dams until a worldwide body was established to review environmental implications. Is it time to universities and businesses in countries with significant hydroelectric salinity problems to found a global program to find a solution? Will water resources faculty at leading universities such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst Water Resources Research Center find the saline solution? Might the work of Ellen Douglas, Allen Gontz and others at the Department of Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences bring to impacts of dam removal? Will discussions between Jack Wiggin of the Urban Harbors Institute and Robbin Peach of the Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security– both at University of Massachusetts Boston – reveal important findings?


According to Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, and journalist for the New York Times, the Middle East may be on the edge of the cliff regarding water supply. Running out of water, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria are in trouble. During a period of time from 2006 to 2011, Syria had terrible droughts and crop failures affecting over half the country. The United Nations confirms that 800,000 thousand people saw their livelihoods dried up. With predictions for a population boom in most Middle Eastern countries (up 132% by 2030), water will be an issue. Ditto for Asia where supply will exceed demand by 40% in 2040. Friedman conjectures “environmental, population and climate stresses are driving the Arab Spring as much as political and economic factors.”


According to Philippe Bernard of France, diplomatic fights over shared water of rivers might need world governance. Some examples include:

River                                    Countries

Jordan                                    Israel, Jordan, Palestine

Mekong                                  Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam

Rio de la Plata                      Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay

Amou Daria                           Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Tigris/Euphrates                  Iraq, Syria, Turkey

As a city on a river (the Charles) as well as an ocean (the Atlantic), should the University of Massachusetts Boston sponsor an exploration of Bernard’s proposal, perhaps in cooperation with Le Havre? Can the UMB’s Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security’s mission ( addressing “human security, threatened by climate-inducted changes in marine and coastal community ecosystems” be a leader of such an international forum?


Fracking is a controversial method of obtaining natural gas, from The Wall Street Journal at

While hydroelectrics may be one of the earliest connections of water and energy, there is a new development. Water is being used to obtain resources of natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” uses between 3 and 8 million gallons of water per day – per well, according to Alex Prud’Homme. But that’s not the worst of it. That water is mixed with chemicals including formaldehyde, xylene, benzene, among other ingredients that drilling companies brew up in sometimes proprietary ways that are not revealed before use. While there are attempts to recover the water, Prud’Homme states much wastewater from fracking goes back into the ground. Fracking is now on the American political agenda. What should be done?

Document of Authorization

AGREEMENT with the U.S.S.R. Concerning the Project for the Implementation of the High Dam, Approved by Decree No. 8 of January 9, 1959 (Official Gazette No. 2n).

December 27, 1958

The government of the U.A.R. and the U.S.S.R., impelled by the friendly relations which exist between them, and in their desire to strengthen economic and technical cooperation between them on a basis of equality and non-intervention in internal affairs and full respect for the dignity and national sovereignty of each of the two countries, and in view of the great importance of the High Dam project at Aswan to the national economy of the U.A.R., have agreed upon the following:

1. In answer to the desire of the Government of the U.A.R. to develop its national economy, the Government of the U.S.S.R. expresses its readiness to cooperate with the Government of the U.A.R. in constructing the first stage of the High Dam at Aswan.The first stage comprises the construction of the front part of the main dam with a height of 50 meters an a length of 600 meters, and the downstream coffer cam with a height of 27 meters and a length of 600 meters; together with work on the diversion of the waters and sluices, as well as the supply of equipment, and instruments necessary for this work. The two parties will agree on measures in the course of study of the details, or whenever the need arises in the course of implementation….It is agreed that all the expenses which will be assumed by the Soviet side, whether for the construction of the Dam itself or for implementation of the works of irrigation and the conversion of the basis, imputed to the loan, will be covered within the limit of the loan offered, according to Article 5 of this agreement.

5. The Government of the U.S.S.R. offers the U.A.R. Government a loan of 400 million roubles (the rouble is equal to 0.222168 grammes of pure gold) to cover the cost of the operations to be carried out by the Soviet organisms for all matters relating to the execution of the projects as well as the studies and researches, the delivery of machinery, equipment and material on the basis of Soviet port prices free of charge to the U.A.R. and back.

– Building the World, pages 614-622. See also Building the World, pp. 614-622.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Hydropolitics: A dam in Egypt built (and financed) by Russia, the High Dam at Aswan opened a new era of hydropolitics. Today, shared water resources present challenges and opportunities around the world: Middle East (Israel, Jordan, Palestine) and the Jordan River, for example. Or the Mekong river in Southeast Asia where Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam might share a vision. Can the lessons learned about ocean waters by UMB’s Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security ( inform decisions about the understanding of human and environmental security implications of climate change and effects on oceans and rivers?

Fracking: Water and energy are linked in other ways than hydroelectricity. Water is the means of obtaining natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. But there are environmental concerns, despite the race for energy resources. Fracking is likely to be a key issue in the decade from 2015 – 2025. What are guidelines, safeguards, and policies to be considered?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

Barringer, Felicity. “A Rare Isotope Helps Track an Ancient Water Source.” The New York Times, November 21, 2011.

Bernard, Philippe. “Water,” in author correspondence dated 21 June, 2012. Available in the Healey Library Archives and Special Collections, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Berns, Pam. “Priceless Water.”, Publisher’s Letter. May, 2012.

Biswas, Asit K. “Aswan Dam Revisited: The Benefits of a Much Maligned Dam” D+C (Development and Cooperation), Monograph No. 6 (November/December 2002): 25-27. Also see

Fahim, Hussein M. Egyptian Nubians: Resettlement and Years of Coping. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983.

Failure, Jacob M. The Everything Middle East Book: The Nations, Their Histories, and Their Conflicts. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2004.

Frankel, Ernst G. “Rhone-Algeria Aqueduct: Feasibility of Fresh Water Supply for Algeria and the Sahara.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 1998, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 317-320

Fung, Fai, Ana Lopez, and Mark New. “Water Availability in +2C and +4C Worlds. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2011) 369:100.

Gorlov, Alexander. “Tidal Power.” Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences. London: Academic Press, 2001.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner Books, 1991.

Macaulay, David. Building Big. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Steele, James. “The Effect of the Aswan High Dam upon Village Life in Upper Egypt.” IASTE 2nd International Conference. “First World-Third World: Duality and Coincidence in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements.” University of California at Berkeley, CA, USA, October 1990.

Whittington, Dale and Giorgio Guariso. Water Management Models in Practice: A Case Study at the Aswan High Dam. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevier Scientific Publishing, 1983.


For a summary of the High Dam at Aswan, including a link to an article by Sayed El-sayed and Gert L. van Kijken relating to the effects of the dam on the Mediterranean, see:

For a drawing showing both the Low Dam and High Dam, as well as detailing the cooperative efforts between Egypt and the Soviet Union, see:

For a report on the World Bank’ role in funding dams, including an analysis by the International Rivers Network, see:

For a tool kit for educators on rivers and climate change, see:

For statistics on increased acreage and a chart illustrating land reclamation as a result of the High Dam at Aswan, see:

Prud’Homme, Alex.

For Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate and Security, see:

For the Water Resources Research Center at University of Massachusetts Amherst, please see:

For interdisciplinary environmental studies by the University of Massachusetts Boston Department of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences (EEOS), see:

For more about the University of Massachusetts Boston Urban Harbors Institute, see:

Creative Commons License
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar