For a couple of centuries now Aswan has had had a very special place in the hearts of many visitors to Egypt. There’s no doubting it has its own fair share of pharaoh treasures that are well worth a visit in their own right.
And let’s not forget there’s always the splendour of taking tea on the terrace of the Old Cataract hotel and being briefly transported back in time.
The town of 250,000 inhabitants has also become the major embarkation point for trips further down the Nile to share in the glories of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and of course the capital Cairo. And with its international airport, Aswan remains the only possible stopover for the onward journey to the treasures of Abu Simbel – 250kms south towards the border with Sudan.
But since 1971 it has also been the site of one of the greatest engineering projects of the twentieth century and, which even today can still spark a heated debate about the environmental consequences – The Aswan Dam.
In truth, it’s the High Dam built from 1960-to 1970 which at the time caused such a controversy that even now rumbles on.
It was the brainchild of the former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who secured Soviet financing and support for its construction.
His aim was to prevent the flooding of the Nile that had occurred regularly downstream, in spite of the original, smaller dam built by the British back in 1902. That had been breached several times and repaired, but the resulting flooding caused recurring havoc in an area where the rainy season normally lasts for four months every year.
Nasser’s plan was to “control” the flow of water properly with a much bigger dam that would also provide a source of power in the form of electricity.
The dam is impressive and jaw-dropping in its immensity, and even today it’s an engineering marvel that’s more than worth a visit.
Behind the construction, the facts and figures are staggering. It took for example a workforce of around 35,000 (mainly) Egyptians, putting in the hours night and day for 10 years to build it. At its crest it’s five kilometres long, and one kilometre thick at its base. It rises 107 metres above sea level.
Although it’s made mostly from local granite and sand, it still needed 66 million tonnes of concrete at its core and after it was finished it helped create the world’s largest reservoir – Lake Nasser. At 500 miles long the lake lies two-thirds within Egypt and one third within neighbouring Sudan.
And therein lie some of those ecological issues that are still posing a problem even today.
When reservoirs are created, they also alter the natural flow of a river and that’s exactly what happened along the Nile.
The construction of the High Dam meant that the mineral rich sediment that had previously fertilised land for crops or been a source of nutrients for animals further downstream, no longer made it through in the same kind of quantities.
In addition there was a general increase in the erosion rates along several sectors of the coast at the Nile delta.
It wasn’t until eight years ago that the Egyptian government actually took action and began yearly flooding on a controlled basis. And that has far from resolved entirely the damage already done.
There have also been important health issues surrounding the creation of such a large man-made reservoir. Because of the intense heat in this part of the world – especially in summer when temperatures regularly reach 45 degrees Celsius - a certain type of parasitic worm began to flourish in the water and that made it unsuitable for drinking.
Even though the state has once again taken measures to try to resolve the problem, people are still wary of drinking water from the dam.
And that of course presents a particular problem as the High Dam and the reservoir are supposed to be not only an important supplier of hydro-electricity (meeting around 20 per cent of the country’s current energy needs) but also a major (drinking) water source.
The enforced movement of people, and cultural costs that followed the dam’s construction have also been enormous and widely felt. And although it has undoubtedly brought economic and political benefits to Egypt – a huge chunk of its trained and qualified workforce was involved in building China’s Three Gorges dam for example - it has also placed a heavy burden on the country’s security forces.
Although the military is seemingly omnipresent throughout much of Egypt, nowhere is its presence perhaps more evident than in the south. The army and the air force both have major bases close to Aswan and there’s stringent security around the dam.
The simple truth is that if any attack were launched on the dam it could have a rippling economic and political impact throughout much of the Middle East. But that’s another story.
It’s well worth a visit just to see how modern day Egypt has been able to compete with its illustrious past. But tourists would be well advised not to try any flippant remark with guards and leave those long lens cameras behind.