“The High Dam is one of the greatest engineering feats of this century,” an Egyptian guide proudly tells a group of foreign tourists visiting the city of Aswan in southern Egypt. “Containing 43.7 million cubic meters of rock and concrete, it’s 16 times bigger than the Great Pyramid of Gizeh.”

It is hard not to speak in superlatives about Egypt’s High Dam knowing it controls the world’s longest river. But comparing it to the Pyramid of Cheops, one of the world’s seven wonders, still standing strong after some 3,000 years, seems a little disrespectful, as the dam only turns 30 next year.

The first dynamite exploded on Jan. 9, 1960, but only after a heated international conflict on the highest level. When late President Nasser embraced the idea of building the High Dam he asked the United States for financial help. They refused. Nasser then nationalized the Suez channel and turned to Russia instead. The dam became a symbol of national pride in a country struggling for independence and self-sufficiency.

The dam was inaugurated on Jan. 16, 1970. It stands 111 meters high, 3,830 meters long, 980 meters wide on a 140-meter-deep foundation. The dam dominates the Aswan valley in more ways than one, as it has become a bigger tourist attraction than the Nubian tombs on Elephant island

“Of course, the dam was not just haphazardly built,” said Professor Ahmed Belal, a physicist at Aswan’s South Valley University. “A lot of research was done beforehand and I think its main objectives have been met.”

Firstly, the dam succeeded in creating a reservoir of water, an invaluable strategic treasure in Egypt’s arid land.  Lake Nasser is no less than 500 kilometers long, took 5 years to fill and contains 169,000 billion cubic meters of water. Because of the creation of the lake,  groundwater levels rose from Egypt all the way to Morocco.

The second goal was to provide the country with cheap electricity. “The dam’s 12 turbines produce some 2,100 megawatts of electricity,” Belal said. “In the 1970s that was sufficient for 75 percent of the country’s needs. Today is can only cater for about 22 percent.”

Thirdly, it aimed at making the Nile more navigable and here too it succeeded, for now fellukas, cruise boats and freight ships alike can reach Cairo.

Finally and most importantly, the dam enabled the Egyptians for the first time to control the Nile’s water supply. “I’m sure that a lot of people would have died in the extreme drought of 1978, as well as in last year’s flood,” he said.

For the first time in the dam’s history, 15 billion liters of water were flushed through last autumn as Lake Nasser threatened to flood. “I think the unusual heavy summer rains in East Africa are somehow connected with the droughts in Asia and the El Nino phenomenon,” Belal added.

In controlling the floods, the dam not only saves many lives each year, but also allows the Egyptians to irrigate more land and grow several crops a year on one field to feed its ever-growing, hungry population.

The River and the Land

“He who drinks from the water of the Nile, falls forever in love with Egypt.” (Felluka captain Jamaica, 1999)

Sailing down the Nile you can hear nothing but the sound of the water and the sails flapping in the wind; for centuries the felukka has been for many a traveler the ultimate way of experiencing the country. While downstream fishermen empty their nets, Egypt’s eternal wealth slowly passes by on the green riverbanks.

The fields are strung together like pearls in a collar going on for kilometer after kilometer. There are palm trees everywhere. Men and women alike work the land in their colorful dresses, children ride donkeys or play in the river, while water buffalo stand grazing, some of Egypt’s millions of White Herons sitting on their backs.

In winter, barley, wheat, sugarcane and beans are grown, in summer; rice, corn and  cotton. Seventy-five percent of the country’s income comes from cotton and rice, which form almost a quarter of total exports.

Despite its agricultural riches, Egypt still has to import some 50 percent of its food supplies as the country has quite a few hungry mouths to feed. One hundred and fifty years ago there were 2 million hectares of arable land for as many people. Today there are 2 million hectares for 60 million people, to which every nine months another million is added. The United Nations estimate that the population will grow to 100 million people in 2025.

The extra 40 million people not only need food, but also homes. Egypt measures some 1 million square kilometers but, as most of it is desert, 99 percent of its population lives on only 3.5 percent of the land, mainly in Cairo and the delta.

Because of the immense population pressure, 600,000 hectares of the 1 million hectares of arable land won over the last 150 years have been lost again to urbanization.

The River and the City

“There was nothing about the scene to distinguish it from any river scene in any city. The Pyramids were hidden by buildings. The gray poppling water and its occasional barges were too matter of fact for description.” (Author William Golding, 1984)

As you sail north, the green fields are gradually replaced by stone and cement, cities and factories, and eventually, Cairo, the capital. Cairo is a city of contradictions, with slums and beggars living alongside boulevards and skyscrapers. With its 18 million inhabitants it’s by far the largest city in the Middle East.

“Until two years ago, all domestic sewage was dumped straight into the river,” said Hassan Awad, professor of Marine Pollution at the University of Alexandria. “But the government is currently constructing what is probably the biggest sewage treatment plant in the world. Today, 70 percent is being treated, which in two years is supposed to rise to 90 percent.”

Many towns and villages outside Cairo, however, don’t have a proper water supply or sewage system. Images of people scrubbing dishes and washing their clothes in the river contradict the heaps of garbage further upstream.

An even bigger problem is the country’s industrial waste. Every day, 78 tons of toxic waste, 388 tons of chemicals, 170 tons of oil and 270 tons of organic material are dumped in the river ­ a total of 600 million tons a year.

“For the last 20 years, a new industrial center has been built every year,” said Awad. “These are often built in the desert and carry creative names like City of 6th of October or City of 10th of Ramadan.”

Forty percent of the country’s industry, including paper, steel and textile plants are located in and around Alexandria. Lake Marriott on the western tip is especially heavily polluted. “Both the lake and the sea bed contain high levels of mercury,” Awad said. “Only over the past few years has environmental awareness been high on people’s agendas here. Now mercury is being dumped in the desert and factories are obliged to treat their waste before dumping.”

A third source of pollution is the pesticides and insecticides of which, until very recently, Egypt was one of the biggest consumers in the world. As the river does not flood, the land no longer becomes enriched with mud.

Since 1970, an average of 35,000 tons of these chemicals have been used per year, but, according to Awad, in the last two years this has fallen to some 4,000 tons a year. In his research he found that both the fish and the shore around Alexandria were contaminated with the insecticide DDT, despite the fact it has been banned for almost 30 years.

“The environment doesn’t stop at the border,” Awad said, “The current levels are for a large part caused by the continued use of DDT in Sudan, which buys the product from a Swiss factory.”

Switzerland is not the only country still producing DDT and similar poisonous insecticides, despite prohibiting its use. In fact, 75 percent of the American production  of insecticides are not intended to be used in the States and are meant solely for export.

The River and the Delta

“Especially in the delta, it seems to me that if the Nile no longer floods, then, for all time to come, the Egyptians will suffer.”(Herodotus, 2nd century AD)

“The influence of the dam on the delta is for me also a very personal matter,” said Mohammed Kassas, professor of ecology at the University of Cairo, “because I was born in Bourj el Burullus ­ a small village on the most northern tip of the Delta.”

The house in which he was born now lies 2 kilometers out in the sea.

The professor is widely regarded as the country’s environmental authority. He is the head of the university’s faculty of science and speaks in its massive library to which he donated his personal collection of thousands of scientific works concerning physics and environment.

“Any delta in the world,” he said, “is a delicate balance between the river and the sea. Normally the river causes the delta to grow by depositing the silt it carries. On the other hand, it’s only natural that the sea erodes the land because of the waves and, in case of the Mediterranean, the anti-clockwise current that moves sediments from west to east. In natural circumstances, the delta would increase with some 40 percent more than it eroded. Now the sea takes its toll.”

He picks up the results of some research he did in the 1960s, which shows that at Rosetta ­ one of the Nile’s two mouths ­ the sea moved 1,650 meters further inland between 1898 and 1954. A loss of land symbolized by the old lighthouse, which in 1898 stood 950 meters from the shore, in 1926 on the shore, while in 1954 a new one was built 2,350 meters south of the old one.

“The first flood control programs were introduced in 1880,” he explains. “Several barrages and dams were built and heightened, before 1956 when the English completed the Aswan Dam. The High Dam is only the last phase in an attempt to control the river.”

The High Dam blocks 98 percent of the Nile’s sediments ­ some 40 million tons ­ that for the larger part end up in the 22,000 square kilometer delta and along the shore. “But,” he says firmly, “the delta losing ground to the sea is a complicated matter. There are more  elements that play a role.”

“First of all,” he continues, “any delta in the world is sinking bit by bit, as sediments become more compact. Then there’s scientific evidence that the Nile delta is subsiding: The western part is sinking by 1-3 millimeters a year, the east by half a centimeter. This is probably due to the two faults under the eastern part of the delta. Thirdly, on a regional level we know that the whole Mediterranean basin is slightly tilting toward the east. And finally, on a world level, global warming is having an effect.”

Two years ago, Egypt set up a special agency for shore protection, spending millions of dollars every year on dumping break waters into the sea.

Based on an annual 1 millimeter rise in the sea level, due to lack of sedimental growth and 1-5 millimeter subsidence, the American magazine Science estimated in 1993 that by 2050 the sea would be 12.5-30 centimeters higher than today.

In 1988, the United Nations Environmental Program based in Nairobi, drew maps of the consequences of rising sea levels in Egypt. If the sea rises by 50 centimeters, the harbor cities of Port Said and Alexandria, plus 7 percent of the fertile land will be lost completely. If the sea rises by 3 meters the whole northern part of the country would loose a strip of land 30-50 kilometers wide.

The River and the End

The Ankh is the Ancient Egyptians’ key of life, the symbol which they carried with them on Judgment Day ­ the day Osiris weighed up people’s sins and good deeds to decide if individual souls were allowed to reunite with the body and live in heaven for eternity.

Held upside-down, Ankh represents Egypt. The bar is the Nile, the crossbar stands for the sun coming up in the west, going down in the east and in the loop water and sun give birth to the earth: The fertile delta.

Since 1970, the Nile, Egypt’s source of life, has been cut by the High Dam, bringing some advantages in the short term. It is doubtful, though, whether the new key will open heaven’s door in the long run too.

“Armed with modern technology,” Kassas concluded, “the Egyptians ceased to see the Nile as the god of their fertile land. They started to harness the river and brought it under full control with the High Dam. But the complexity of this river’s delta goes well beyond that of an engineer’s genius.”

February, 17, 1999