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 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.