What is the Aswan Dam?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

There are actually two dams at Aswan, not one, although most people are talking about the Aswan High Dam when they refer to the “Aswan Dam.” Together, these two dams control the flow of the Nile river through Egypt, and they are also used to generate hydroelectric power for the people of Egypt. The Aswan Dam has generated a great deal of controversy ever since it was built in the 1960s. Some people fear that the dam may be causing irreparable environmental harm, and they would like to see it removed, although this would have some severe ramifications for Egypt.

The Aswan Dam controls the flow of the Nile river through Egypt.
The Aswan Dam controls the flow of the Nile river through Egypt.

The first dam at Aswan, known as the Aswan Low Dam, was built in the late 1800s by the British, and reinforced several times. This dam was initially designed to control the annual flooding of the Nile, an important event in Egypt. For thousands of years, Egyptians have lived and farmed near the Nile, taking advantage of the annual flooding to irrigate and fertilize their fields. As the population grew, the unpredictable flooding became an issue, causing loss of life and property damage, and the British responded by damming the river, in an attempt to control the flooding.

The first Aswan Dam proved to be inadequate for the task, and in the 1950s several countries including the United States pledged to help build a dam further upstream. However, these countries later reneged on the deal, forcing Egypt to turn to the Soviet Union for help, and in the 1960s, construction of the Aswan High Dam began.

As a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, mass flooding occurred upstream on the Nile, displacing people from their homes and causing considerable damage to some priceless archaeological sites. The lake which formed behind the dam is known as Lake Nasser, named for the late Egyptian President Nasser. Egyptians felt that the upstream flooding was a reasonable price to pay in exchange for controllable seasonal floodwaters and a steady source of hydroelectric power.

Over the long term, several problems have emerged in Egypt as a result of the Aswan Dam. The capacity of Lake Nasser is shrinking due to depositions of silt behind the dam, and because the silt is not reaching the rest of Egypt, Egyptians have been forced to use chemical fertilizers to support their crops. The banks of the Nile are also undergoing severe erosion, because they are being eaten away by the Nile without being replaced by fresh silt, and the fertility of the Nile Delta has declined dramatically. Evidence also seems to suggest that salinity levels in the Mediterranean increased after the construction of the second Aswan Dam, resulting in instability of fish stocks.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I am doing a cost-benefit analysis for World Geography on the Aswan Dam. Though this article is of great help, it fails to mention any benefits of the Aswan Dam. Nevertheless, it is a good article, and I may or may not use it as one source.


What is the Aswan Dam used for?


I'm actually doing an egypt project at the moment and trying to find out about the dam but there are little sites to choose from. this has been a great help!


@ FrameMaker- I agree that the Aswan Dam has problems, but I believe that many of these problems can be solved without creating more problems. Egyptians use most of the Nile’s water for irrigation (some 80 percent), so the solution to creating sustainable future development of the region needs to focus on systems that increase irrigation efficiency while reducing the amount of water drawn from the Nile.

One such solution is in the research phase right now. Researchers are developing irrigation systems for areas that have access to salt water. The systems use still desalinization to create fresh water, and then use drip irrigation to distribute this water to crops in the most efficient manner possible. This system addresses both the input and output ends of the irrigation system, all while keeping the costs much lower than the expensive high efficiency desalinization processes.


This article is great. I had never heard of the Aswan Dam before this, but now I have an understanding of the dam, the region, and the issues surrounding the dam. In the argument over the environmental friendliness of the dam, I can understand the point of both sides.

On the one hand, the High Aswan Dam is a source of renewable energy that produces virtually no pollutants or emissions, and allows a nation to prosper. This means that Egypt is not an economic burden to developing nations because the nation is self-sufficient. Egyptians can produce their own food, generate their own electricity, and use some of this electricity for desalination.

On the flip side of the coin, the dam has destroyed culturally significant areas, has increased development that leads to increased water consumption, and has caused damage to downstream soil profiles by reducing silt deposition. This is the type of situation where one can only wonder what to do.


I was using this article for my social studies (history) paper I wrote. It helped tremendously! I just want to thank you for all the information you gave me.

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