Role of the Aswan High Dam in Promoting the Nile River System Management

Dr Tarek A. Ahmed

This submission was presented at the WCD Regional Consultation, Cairo, Egypt, 8 - 9 December 1999

1. Introduction

In around 450 BC, Greek historian Herodotus described Egypt as ”the gift of the Nile”.   Almost two and half thousand years later, Egypt is still the gift of the Nile, but the Nile has been reshaped due to interventions of several generations of Egyptians in their continuous attempt to harness the river flow.  The utmost achievement in this regard was the construction of the Aswan High Dam (AHD), which started impounding water since 1964 and was officially inaugurated in 1970 following the completion of the turbine station. This paper is an endeavour to review the evolution of water management within the Nile River system before and after the AHD construction.In this context, positive and negative impacts of the project will be underlined, and light shed on the role of the Non-Governmental Association for Preservation of Irrigation and Drainage Networks and Environmental Conservation in Egypt in carrying out maintenance responsibilities in view of a growing reversion to decentralised management.

 2. Water Management within the Nile Water System before the AHD

Until the erection of the Aswan High Dam (AHD), a farmer's life was entirely featured by the periodical fluctuations of climatic conditions.  Farmers used to divide an agricultural year into three main seasons; inundation, coming forth and lack of water.  While the arable land was usually covered for 6-8 weeks during flood time by an average of about two meters of water, agriculture was abandoned during the river's low flow periods.The typical farming practice was to bury seeds in dry soils before the land was inundated by the following flood.The main crops that characterised the one-crop-per-year regime at ancient times were wheat and barely.  Other non-flooded crops, e.g. vine and olives, were further introduced in the Egyptian agricultural system and irrigated using lifting water devices, such as the shadouf.  In all cases, as long as it acted normally, the Nile did not represent any danger to farmers.Rather, the familiarity with the rhythm of the river directed a farmer's behaviour towards a progressive promotion of the water supply benefits and control of inherent hazards.  This was reflected in the invention of various agriculture tools and irrigation equipment.  It was only during the nineteenth century when governmental interventions in the management of the Nile system crystallised into the construction of large-scale water structures.  The whole system was, for the first time, dealt with as an integral unit.The construction and remodelling of the old Delta Barrages, which started in 1843, followed by the erection of the new Delta Barrages (1939), allowed the introduction of perennial irrigation in limited areas of the agricultural land.However, the growing need for generalising perennial irrigation at a national scale, making full use of the Nile water and protecting against extremely high as well as low floods fostered the idea of constructing a mass storage water structure at the system inlet.  A large dam was built at Aswan for this purpose and called the Aswan High Dam (AHD).

 3. Positive Impacts of the AHD

The construction of the AHD, which can be considered an irrigation revolution for full utilisation of Nile water, entailed the introduction of regulated agriculture and controlled irrigation. Accordingly, farmers, who constitute the main beneficiaries of the AHD project, enjoyed numerous advantages. These include:

·         guaranteed availability of irrigation water at any predetermined period for agricultural production,

·         improved management of water supply throughout the Egyptian water system, resulting in a transfer of about one million acres from seasonal to perennial irrigation,

·         agricultural expansion in millions of acres of new land owing to increased water availability,

·         protection from high floods as well as from low floods, and

·         generation of hydroelectric power to supply villages with electricity.

4. Negative Impacts of the AHD

Despite the AHD recognised advantages, the project became a global symbol of environmental and social problems caused by large-scale development projects.The AHD impacts were reflected in a wide spectrum of life aspects, including:

A change in water quality, as the maximum water release through the AHD is about a quarter of the earlier flood discharge and practically silt-free.  Bed and bank erosions were monitored in the downstream reaches of the Nile, causing a change in river water levels and flow velocities, which would affect the quality of water.

Siltation in Lake Nasser, causing correspondent erosion and land loss in the Mediterranean coastal areas.

Degradation of agricultural soil fertility, entailing the use of chemical fertilisers.Traces of these fertilisers are spotted in agricultural drainage water, which in many cases is routed back to the agricultural and domestic water systems.

Salinity and waterlogging problems, which have developed since the AHD construction due to the over-irrigation of lands, increase in cropping intensities and expansion of rice and sugar cane cultivation.The horizontal agricultural expansion in sandy or light soils that lie generally within the Nile Valley fringes of higher elevation have increased seepage into the Nile system lands, thus contributing to salinity hazards.

Propagation of schistosomiases and the northward migration of malaria mosquito vectors from Sudan.

Negative effects on fisheries in the Nile system and coastal lakes, as the migration of certain types of fish were dependent on the arrival of turbid floodwater, which is now impounded upstream of the AHD.   This problem can be exemplified by the fact that since the mineral rich silts that nourished certain fish species have been deposited behind the AHD, sardines, which breed at the estuaries of the Nile, almost disappeared.

The rise in groundwater levels, requiring new philosophies of land drainage.With the decrease in the cyclic behaviour of groundwater that was taking place before the AHD construction (levels rising after a flood wave and gradually decreasing afterwards) and the increase in cropping intensities and perennial irrigation applications, more water is released in the waterway networks, thus increasing vertical seepage and eventually feeding the water table.This was further exacerbated by the lack of effective drainage in some areas of the Nile Valley and Delta.

The widespread growth of weeds in waterway channels as a result of the inflow of silt-free water, use of fertilisers and intensification of agriculture.  Due to the recent epidemic propagation of weeds, the safety and effectiveness of irrigation and drainage networks were endangered, a significant amount of water wasted, water flows through channels interrupted and environmental conditions disturbed.

5. Water Management within the Nile Water System after the AHD

Despite the promoted water availability in the post-AHD stage, numerous problems resulted from water mismanagement within the Egyptian agricultural system in the light of small land properties.These included water shortage at canal tail ends, the lack of coordination among farmers of the same neighbourhood, especially with regard to the selection of cropping patterns and maintenance of shared irrigation and drainage services, etc.  The diversity and very local nature of such problems, in addition to the national switch to management decentralisation, necessitated the establishment of an NGO to assist with, and sometimes take over, the government’s responsibilities with regard to the promotion of farming practices.  In this context, the Non-Governmental Association for Preservation of Irrigation and Drainage Networks and Environmental Conservation in Egypt (APIDNECE) was launched on November 11th, 1996.  Membership of the APIDNECE was opened to experts in agriculture, environment, irrigation, drainage, etc., a number of public personalities and officials who have special interests in APIDNECE activities, as well as representatives of farmers from all over the country.

6. Objectives of the Non-Governmental Association for Preservation of Irrigation and Drainage Networks and Environmental Conservation in Egypt (APIDNECE)

APIDNECE was mainly initiated to fulfil the following objectives:

·       Support the State as well as individuals and beneficiaries in carrying out maintenance works for canals, drains and water structures.

·       Secure the safety and cleanliness of the Nile main river and its branches.

·       Prevent waterway pollution.

·       Contribute to the waterway preservation and environmental improvement through available and technical resources.

·       Support other NGOs working in the same field.

·       Create job opportunities in the neighbourhood of canals and drains being maintained.

·       Promote new staff of volunteers for serving and improving the environment through training and exhortation.

·       Increase environmental awareness among the population through organising open forums and circulating brochures and posters among the public.

·       Establish link channels and associations for coordinating between similar organisations in foreign countries, with a particular reference to the Nile basin countries.

·       Establish branches of APIDNECE throughout the country to work under the same laws and regulations and through full internal coordination for achieving maximum benefits.

7. APIDNECE Resources

Funds available to the APIDNECE committee include:

·            Membership fees and contributions from the APIDNECE members.

·            Local and foreign grants and donations.

·            Individual and organisational local contributions.

·            Contributions from the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources.

·            Contributions from the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation.

·            Contributions from the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs.

·            Financial returns resulting from works undertaken by the APIDNECE.

8. Conclusion

A review of the impacts of the AHD based on more than twenty-five years of operation indicates that it has an overall positive impact despite having contributed to some environmental problems.   As stated by the former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme: “The real question is not whether the Egyptians should have built the AHD or not -for Egypt realistically had no choice- but what steps should have been taken to reduce the adverse environmental impacts to a minimum”. The initiation of the APIDNECE was one of the remedial measures carried out in the context of overcoming the post-AHD negative aspects and practices.APIDNECE activities are undertaken through non-governmental funds and mainly concentrate on maintaining the national irrigation and drainage networks and preserving the soundness of their environmental conditions.