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by: A.I. Makki

  In the year 1902, work on the dam progressed smoothly and after five months of painstaking effort the great work was completed by May 1902. The official opening of the dam took place the following December, when the Khedive of Egypt, Abbas Hilmi Pasha, opened five of the great sluice gates to allow pent-up water to rush through the river. The work on the dam had cost over five million pounds. It had swallowed over a million tons of granite, 75000 tons of cement and 6400 tons of steel work. The sluice gates constructed into the dam were considered to be marvels of engineering for each of them was capable of being worked with ease, although, at the lowest level of water it has a pressure of 200 tons against it! During the season when the Nile is in flood, more than 15000 tons of water passes through its sluices every second. The gates were left open in flood time, so that water from the Nile could move through it freely and convey its life-giving silt to the lower reaches of the land. As the flood diminished the gates were closed to store up the required amount of water to be used at a later date.

  Gigantic as the work was, it soon became necessary to improvise upon the existing work. The surging torrents of the River Nile sweeping through the sluices had begun to scour out the riverbed forming a deep hollow in it near the base of the dam. The engineers feared that this in turn would affect the stability of the foundations of the dam and it was soon decided to cut out all the defective and loose rock at the foot of the dam, and a huge slope of granite blocks provided as a protection to the river bed so that the water running through the sluices is carried forward by 200 feet until it reaches the original riverbed. This work required an additional 350,000 tons of masonry and the cost of building it came to nearly 350,000 pounds.

  Although, the huge reservoir formed by the dam was completed in the year 1902, and the water stored in it allocated to the surrounding regions by the end of 1903, it became soon apparent to the British engineers working on the dam that it was not sufficient to meet the needs of the farming community of the Nile Delta, and there was an urgent need to increase the height of the dam. In 1907, Sir Benjamin Baker, one of the engineers working on the dam was given the task of designing an addition to the reservoir that would increase its capacity by 2250 million tones. The problem of increasing the height of the dam and strengthening it to hold two- times as much water was one of the most difficult problems ever solved by the dam construction engineers.

  The dam had to be raised by 16 feet, and the depth of the water behind it by 23 feet. And, the construction of the dam required the structure to be thickened as well as raised simultaneously. Sir Benjamin’s design left a space of 6 inches between the new wall of the dam and the original wall with the two joined together by a number of steel rods. The rods bearing the weight of the new face allowed room for cementing the dam. After the front portion was built in the year 1907-09 the gap was filled with cement mortar, and the two walls of the dam were bound together to make a solid whole. During 1910-12 the heightening of the dam was carried out, and ten years after the opening of the original structure the enlarged dam was brought into use. The additional work had incurred a cost 1,500,000 pounds and used up 400,000 tons of masonry, so that the dam as a whole contained nearly two millions tons!

  In the year 1929, the Government of Egypt again set up an International Commission comprising of an American, a Swiss and a British Engineer to advise it on the feasibility of further heightening the dam to increase its capacity to hold water and to recommend the most suitable design for the purpose. In its report the Commission informed that the dam could safely raised by another 29 feet 6 inches; and the level of the reservoir increased by 26 feet. Work on the new scheme was commenced early in 1931, and carried on without interruption towards the end of 1933. The dam was now 6987 feet long compared to 6428 feet in 1902, and its maximum height was 174 feet compared with the 128 feet of the original structure. The raising of the dam made it necessary for the construction of 90 new sluices, and in addition, the reconstruction of the remainder. The reservoir formed by the heightened dam now held about 5000 millions tons of water, and incurred a cost of ten million pounds.

  The River Nile had been tamed but only partially. While the raising of the Aswan dam was in progress, a barrage similar to those at Assiut and Isna but capable of holding a much greater amount of water was constructed at Nag Hamadi, and opened in 1930. On the other side of Egypt the water from the river first passed through Sudan and it was decided that Sudan should also reap some of the benefit from the River Nile. However the Egyptians were apprehensive that any work on a dam in Sudan would affect Egypt’s supply of water from the Nile. But the fears of the government were allayed when it was pointed out that an enormous quantity of water was wasted in the middle of July when Egypt had all the water she could use and the rest was passed into the sea. Experiments also showed that during the months of February to October, the Egyptian period of cultivation, the climate in Sudan was too hot for cotton growing, but crops could be sown in July and picked in the month of February or March with every success.

  A scheme was therefore prepared for impounding the waters of the Blue Nile to irrigate the Gezirah (island) region, which lies between the Blue Nile and the White Nile just south of Khartoum by the aid of a dam across the Blue Nile at Sennar, 2000 miles from the mouth of the Nile. This dam was first suggested around 1904 by Sir William Garstin, one of the pioneers of Egyptian Irrigation Service and the founder of its Sudan. Work on the dam commenced before the First World War-although plans were drawn for it much earlier-but was abandoned soon after. The construction was continued after hostilities ceased and the Sennar Dam was officially opened on 21st January 1926.

  In order to build the Sennar Dam, the river was temporarily diverted by means of sudds, first to the western channel and then to the eastern channel. The great dam built was nearly two miles long and 120 feet high and it took over a million tons of stone brought from 20 miles to the site. Its base was 90 feet thick and tapered to 15 feet at the top. Around 20,000 men were employed to do the job and the workforce was made up of both Egyptians and Sudanese nationals, along with 350 skilled Egyptian masons.  Other workers were hired to work on the dam were from Arab countries on the other side of the Red Sea, Nigeria and French Congo. A hundred thousand tons of cement, and 3500 tons of steelwork were placed in the dam, which holds back the water for a distance of 58 miles.

  Eighty main sluices, 14 canal sluices and 112 spillways were constructed into the dam and the water stored would be used later to irrigate 460,000 acres of land without taking any water supply that was required for the needs of Egypt. The only water that was stored being that of which would otherwise be emptied by the Nile into the Mediterranean Sea. The cost of the whole project was around ten million pounds.

  An agreement was made in 1928 that gave the Egyptian Government the right to control the waters of the Nile outside Egypt, and as a result work commenced in 1933 on a dam at Jabal Aulija in the Sudan, 20 miles south of Khartoum. As the White Nile Valley from south of Khartoum was extremely flat, it was possible to impound a great volume of water by a dam of modest height. Work on the dam was started in November 1933 and was completed in April 1937. The completed dam was the longest in the Egyptian system. The reservoir that resulted by the construction of the dam was 187 miles long and four miles wide in parts had been formed and the dam was capable of holding 3000 million tons of water. Its purpose was to pass on water to Aswan and served the same purpose as if the capacity of the Aswan reservoir were increased again.

  Still more colossal projects for conserving the Nile waters became inevitable due to meet the needs of the ever-growing population of Egypt. The stage was set for building the Aswan High Dam when the old dam overflowed in the year 1946.The engineers monitoring the dam decided that instead of raising the dam for the third time, it would be better to build another one with a larger capacity six kilometers from the original dam. Planning for the dam started in the year 1952, after Gamal Abdul Nasser seized power in Egypt, and at first the United States offered to fund its construction with a loan of $270 million. Bids for construction of the dam were invited from British, French and German firms.  When the aid offer was withdrawn in the year 1956, after Egypt formally recognized the People's Republic of China, Nasser decided to proceed with its construction with the help of the revenues earned through the ships passing through the Suez Canal.

  By then, the Soviet Union struggling to increase its zone of influence in Africa during the Cold War offered to help in the construction of the dam and agreed to finance it on the condition that only Soviet equipment and engineering methods were used in the construction of the dam. The Russian Zuk Hydro-project Institute designed the enormous rock and clay dam that was built and later called as the Sadd al-Ali Dam. More than 800 Soviet engineers and technicians were sent to the site to guide the work. But, Sadd al-Aali was not destined to be an entirely Russian dam. The workforce of 30,000 at the dam included men from many nations, among them Finland, Switzerland, India, Ghana, Canada, Argentina and the United States. Equipment to the site also came from different parts of the world: bulldozers from USA, excavators from Britain and Swedish rock drills.

  Construction on the High Dam started in the year 1960. The High Dam, Al Saad al-Aali with its grand display of stone and steel was completed on July 20, 1970. The dam was 3600 meters long, 980 meters at its base, and had a room for a highway 40 meters wide along its crest and is 111 meters tall. Its first stage finished in the year 1964 and the reservoir was filled in 1964 when the dam was still being constructed. It became Egypts biggest, most colossal monument that was ever built since the construction of the Great Pyramids of the ancient times. According to estimates, the dam holds 55 million cubic yards of material-masonry, rock and steel-enough for constructing 17 Great Pyramids The Aswan dam had increased Egypt’s cultivable land by 30% and created a reservoir of water so vast that it could hold Egypts water supply for a number of years so that the Nile could be regulated during its high or low annual flood at all times. And, it also created Lake Nasser, the worlds largest man-made lake, which raised the water table in the Sahara as far as Algeria. The generators at the hydroelectric power station at the Sadd al-Aali-the Aswan High dam- are capable of spinning out ten billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually to power industry in Egypt and allowed for the connection of most Egyptain villages to electricity for the first time.

  Unfortunately all these advances came with a price. Water impounded by the Aswan High Dam would submerge some of Egypts chief tourist attractions, the prehistoric temples at Abu Simbel, and the government looked for ways to save the two temples there. Suggestions came cheap, but the price tags came as high as 90 million dollars. The engineers had to move two temples literally carved out of the living rock of a mountainside. The front portion of the temple with its four colossal figures, the sandstone portrait of Ramases II stood 110 feet high, and 125 feet high. The Great Hall, wide rooms, and inner sanctuaries burrowed 200 feet into the mountain. And, the other temple a shrine to Nefertari was small by comparison: 40 by 90 feet from the outside and 70 feet from the entrance to the back wall. Early proposals at saving these monuments called for cutting each temple out in one gigantic piece and raising it to the top of the cliff to its new site, about the height of a 19-story building. The U.A.R considered this, and wisely tossed the problem to the world, through UNESCO. An intensive fund-raising campaign began, and more ideas to save the temples were solicited. By then the first stage of the dam was nearing completion and the water levels in it were rising by the day. Forced to a decision the UNESCO and U.A.R accepted a Swedish plan: carve the monuments into manageable blocks, haul them a block at a time, and resemble them at the cliff-top, at a cost of 36 million dollars.

  Ever since prehistoric times, Egypt had been overtaken by famine, due to the Nile not rising sufficiently to flood the land. During those years the Egyptians had suffered from Low Nile and crop failure. Until the middle of nineteenth century the River Nile had been left to chart out its own path, and Egypt was entirely at its mercy unable to check its flow. Today, the people of Egypt can look back with pride on the harnessing of the Nile and to the outstanding contributions made by the dams to the material progress of Egypt. Above all, the great dams of Egypt are now capable of parceling out water saved from the fat years to nourish the lean.


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