Aswan High Dam Leaves an Environmental Legacy

by Joannah Otis for No Water No Life

This is the second our blog series on “The Nile River in Egypt” by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blog “Finding Hapi-ness on the Nile,” this essay addresses perhaps the greatest elements of change created thus far by humans along the Nile. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the Nile in those regions.]

Aswan_DamAswan Dam on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt

Background on Aswan High Dam

The Nile River snakes south to north for 4,160 miles through ten North African countries until it reaches the Mediterranean Ocean.1 Its path is interrupted only by the great Aswan High Dam, which has brought both good and bad to the Egyptian people. Towering 364 feet tall and stretching 12,565 feet along its crest, the Aswan High Dam is impressive.2 This dam was opened in 1971 after a decade of construction and seeking funds from the Soviet Union.3 Its transboundary reservoir, Lake Nasser, which backs up into Sudan for 300 miles, holds nearly two years’ worth of water from the Nile River.

Benefits of the Aswan High Dam & Lake Nasser

The High Dam, replacing a 1902 Low Dam, annually generates more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, facilitating Egypt’s path to industrialization. This new dam also marked a major shift in Egypt’s agricultural prospects. Previously, Nile River Basin farmers were forced to depend on fickle seasonal flooding, which could bring appropriate levels of water one year and often completely washed away soil the next. Such unpredictability made it hard to grow a reliable crop; and the Nile’s single flooding season precluded farmers from having more than one harvest per year.

Lake Nasser’s surplus of water has well served the irrigation needs of Egypt and Sudan, since water availability is especially critical, given Egypt’s growing population and increasing water needs. (NB:  NWNL is studying these trends that portend dire water scarcity in the near future.) The Aswan Dam now allows for two to three crop cycles annually.  Nearby aquifers are inundated by increased amounts of water due to year long, rather than seasonal irrigation.  Water levels are carefully monitored and extra water is saved for times of drought. There has been huge economic benefit to the fact that the dams has allowed Egypt to triple the output of its most important and profitable crops, wheat and cotton.5  

Lake-nasserLake Nasser in Egypt.

Thus, the Aswan High Dam created a new future of irrigation water, flood control and electricity – but came with disconcerting drawbacks. Its story and continued influence on the Nile River illustrate how human ingenuity can inadvertently take a toll on the environments and ecosystems we so rely on.  The degradation of Nile ecosystems and the influx of increasing chemical runoff are reminders of the negative impacts that infrastructure, intended to improve quality of life, can have on nearby environments and habitats for all species, including humans.

Consequences of the Aswan High Dam & Lake Nasser

While Lake Nasser reservoir has allowed for controlled downstream flows into northern Egypt, that backlog of Nile water forced the relocation about 100,000 people to other lands in Sudan and Egypt.6 Abu Simbel Temple and 22 historical structures fortunately were moved under UNESCO’s watchful eye, yet Buhen Fort, the Fadrus Cemetery and other archeological sites (whose relocation would have been too costly) were submerged.

Stagnant waters in Lake Nasser have threatened the health of people using or residing near the Nile River waters. Downstream, the dam promotes the presence of schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease also known as bilharzia or “snail fever.” Schistosomiasis kills more than 200,000 Africans annually; and 20 million sufferers develop disfiguring disabilities from complications, kidney and liver diseases, and bladder cancer.

Egyptian_harvest.jpgTomb Painting of Peasants Harvesting Papyrus

Seasonal flooding once brought thick layers of dark silt to farms, which farmers used a natural fertilizer. Unfortunately, the Aswan High Dam almost completely blocks the movement of nutrient-rich sediment downstream. (NB:  NWNL has seen similar impacts of Ethiopia’s new Gibe Dams, ending 6,000 years of flood-recession agriculture practiced by pastoralists in the Lower Omo River Basin.) As rich Upper Nile sediments collected behind the dam, Egyptian farmers resorted to toxic chemical fertilizers that drain into the Nile. These pollutants can cause liver disease and renal failure in humans.7 

Farming phosphates running into the river increase algae growth. Algae blooms, elicited by excess nutrients (eutrophication), produce cyanotoxins, which affect the health of fish and may poison humans.At the same time, fish populations no longer benefit from nutrients that used to be in upstream Nile sediments. Aquatic species in the Mediterranean Sea near the Nile Delta have suffered similarly from decreased natural nutrients and increased chemicals.9

Riverbanks also suffer from a lack of replenishing sediments as their erosion continues unchecked.  Prior to the dam’s construction, the average suspended silt load was 3,000 parts per million (ppm). Post-construction silt levels have declined to 50 ppm.10 Further downstream, the Nile Delta suffers from a lack of silt replenishment. [NB:  NWNL has documented parallel deltaic losses and damage in the U. S., as  levees along the Mississippi River withhold sediment that used to rebuild storm erosion in the Mississippi Delta.]

Silt-free water along with a lower current velocity and steady water levels have enabled invasive aquatic weeds to infest the Nile River and its irrigation canals. Large volumes of aquatic weeds, water hyacinths in particular, create stagnant water conditions, impair water flow, provide breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes and prevent the passage of boats whose propellers become clogged with invasive weeds.  Prior to the dam’s construction, these weeds were unable to flourish due to the Nile’s varying water levels and the force of its flow.11

Eichhornia_crassipes_C.jpgWater Hyacinth  (Credit: Wouter Hagens)

Erosion in the Nile Delta is especially threatening because it has led to saltwater intrusion.   (NB: Again, this is another issue also occurring in the Mississippi River Delta.)  Increased groundwater salinity from the encroaching Mediterranean Sea is decreasing cotton and rice yields.12 Additionally, fertilizers have further heightened saline levels.13

Beyond Aswan:  Footnote by NWNL Director Alison Jones

In 2009, Egypt was the most populous, agricultural and industrial country in the Nile Basin.14 The Aswan Dam has been a major factor in this march by Egypt to progress and prosperity.  However, just as the Aswan Dam came with a price – so will the upstream Grand Renaissance Dam, now under construction in Ethiopia on the Blue Nile River.  It is likely the impacts of this new Ethiopian dam – the largest ever on the African continent – will be even more consequential to Egypt than those of the Aswan High Dam.  It seems a new chapter is about to be written regarding settlement of transboundary conflicts spawned from disputes over dam impacts and upstream-downstream water rights.


1“Nile River Facts.” Africa Facts. Web. 2017
2Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 602
3Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 602
4Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 600
5Biswas, Asit K.; Tortajada, Cecilia. “Impacts of the High Aswan Dam.” Third World Centre for Water Management. 2012. p 389
6Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. May 1985. p 602
7Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
8El-Sheekh M. “River Nile Pollutants and Their Effect on Life Forms and Water Quality,” in “The Nile.” (Dumont H.J, Monographiae Biologicae, Vol 89. Springer, Dordrecht)
9Biswas, Asit K.; Tortajada, Cecilia. “Impacts of the High Aswan Dam.” Third World Centre for Water Management. P 389. 2012.
10Biswas, Asit K.; Tortajada, Cecilia. “Impacts of the High Aswan Dam.” Third World Centre for Water Management. P 385. 2012.
11El-Shinnawy, Ibrahim A.; Abdel-Meguid, Mohamed; Nour Eldin, Mohamed M.; Bakry, Mohamed F. “Impact of Aswan High Dam on the Aquatic Weed Ecosystem.” Cairo University. September 2000. p 535-538.
12Theroux, Peter. “The Imperiled.” National Geographic Magazine. January 1997.
13World Wildlife Foundation. “Nile Delta flooded savanna.” Web. 2017.
14El-Sheekh M. “River Nile Pollutants and Their Effect on Life Forms and Water Quality,” in “The Nile.” (Dumont H.J, Monographiae Biologicae, Vol 89. Springer, Dordrecht)
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Oh, dam!

What Is A Dam? A dam is a structure, often quite large, built across a river to retain its flow of water in a reservoir for various purposes, most commonly hydropower.  In the U.S. there are over 90,000 dams over 6 feet tall, according to American Rivers.  In 2015 half of Earth’s major rivers contained around 57,000 large dams, according to International Rivers.  Dams are complicated. This blog presents a look at some of the benefits, consequences and impacts of dams, along with NWNL photographs of  North American and African dams in our case-study  watersheds.

BC: Waneta, Columbia River Basin, Waneta Dam on Pend d'Oreille RiverDanger sign at the Waneta Dam in the Columbia River Basin (2007)
Jones_111022_LA_2865Atchafalaya Old River Low Sill Control Structure, Louisiana (2011)

The slowing or diversion of river flows caused by dams – and related “control structures” – can have severe environmental impacts. Many species that reside in rivers rely on a steady flow for migration, spawning and healthy habitats. Altered river flows can disorient migrating fish and disrupt reproduction cycles needing natural seasonal flows.

US: Washington, Columbia River Basin, aerial views of Chief Joseph Dam
Jones_070622_WA_4119Aerial views of Chief Joseph Dam in the Columbia River Basin (2007)

The introduction of a dam into a river creates a reservoir by halting a river’s flow. This can severely impact the quality of water. Still water can cause water temperatures to increase. Resulting abnormal temperatures can negatively affect species; cause algae blooms; and decrease oxygen levels.

Jones_070628_OR_5171_MJuvenile fish bypass at the McNary Dam in the Columbia River Basin (2007)
Ethiopia: aerial of Omo River, construction site of Gibe Dam IIIAerial view of the construction site of Gibe III Dam in the Omo River (2007)

Bryan Jones, featured in Patagonia’s documentary “Dam Nation,” discussed today’s situation with four aging dams on the Lower Snake River (authorized in 1945) in his 2014 NWNL Interview:  “We used science then available to conquer and divide our river systems with dams. But today we can look at them and say, ‘Well-intentioned, but it didn’t really work out the way we would’ve liked it to.'”  Dams that may have been beneficial at one point in history must be constantly reassessed and taken down when necessary to restore river and riparian ecosystems and species. Some compare dams to humans, since they too have a limited life span of about 70-100 years.

Jones_100413_UG_9603Small dam across the White Nile River in Uganda (2010)
East AFrica: Uganda, JingaConstruction of the Bujagali Dam on the White Nile River in Uganda (2010)

There are well-intended reasons to build dams.  In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has listed the values of dams on their website.  Those benefits  include recreation, flood control, water storage, electrical generation and debris control. These benefits are explained on the FEMA website.

USA: Alabama, Tennessee River Basin, Guntersville Dam (TVA)Danger sign at the Guntersville Dam, Tennessee River Basin (2013)
Jones_150817_CA_5888Parker Dam (a hydrodam) on the Colorado River, Southern California (2015)

Between 1998 and 2000, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) established the most comprehensive guidelines for dam building, reviewing 1,000 dams in 79 countries in two years. Their framework  for decision-making is based on recognizing rights of all interested parties and assessing risks.  Later, the European Union adopted this framework, stating that carbon credits from large dams can only be sold on the European market if the project complies with the WCD framework.

Many conflicts swirl around the impacts, longevity and usefulness of dams.  NWNL continues to study dam benefits versus their impacts, including removal of indigenous residents in order to establish reservoirs;  disruption of the downstream water rights and needs of people, species and ecosystems; and relative efficiencies of hydropower versus solar and wind.  Dam-building creates consequences.  Native Americans studied risks of their decisions for seven generations.  After the Fukushima tsunami caused the release of radioactive material, Japanese novelist Kazumi Saeki wrote:  “People have acquired a desire for technology that surpasses human comprehension.  Yet the bill that has come due for that desire is all too dear.”

Sources and resources for more information:

American Rivers, How Dams Damage Rivers

International Rivers, Environmental Impacts of Dams

International Rivers, Problems with Big Dams

International Rivers, The World Commission on Dams Framework – A Brief Introduction

FEMA, Benefits of Dams

National Hydropower Association, Why Hydro

NWNL, Interview with Bryan L. Jones

New York Times, Kazumi Saeki, In Japan, No Time Yet for Grief

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Future of the Mekong River is at risk

Dam construction along Mekong River, Laos
Dam construction along Mekong River, Laos

The Mekong River in Southesast Asia is one of the world’s longest waterways, and flows through 6 countries: China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In November of 2014, NWNL followed the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. This is part of the main stem of the river.

Development along the Mekong, Chiang Khong, Thailand, 2014
Development along the Mekong, Chiang Khong, Thailand, 2014
Mekong water used for crop irrigation, Chiang Khong, Thailand
Mekong water used for crop irrigation, Chiang Khong, Thailand
Fishery, Chiang Khong, Thailand
Fishery, Chiang Khong, Thailand

Fish make up 80% of the Southeast Asian diet.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for the environmental group International Rivers, says the dam-building rush and climate change have brought the Mekong River Basin close to a “catastrophic tipping point”.

Dam construction in Laos
Dam construction in Laos

The proposal of several hydrodams would be devastating to millions of people who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods, food security, crop irrigation and let’s not forget wildlife!

Stay informed! Read more about this in “Cry Me a River.”

Check for updates on International Rivers and Save the Mekong.

Dam construction in Laos
Dam construction in Laos

NWNL Photo Exhibit, ‘Following Rivers’ opens @ BIRE March 14th

The Hudson River rises in pristine forests and enters tidal waters under heavily-trafficked urban bridges.  
The Hudson River rises in pristine forests and enters tidal waters under heavily-trafficked urban bridges.

On the banks of our rivers we raise families, grow food, do laundry, fish, swim, celebrate and relax. “Following Rivers,” a new exhibit by conservation photographer and No Water No Life Founding Director Alison M. Jones, tells a visual story of people and the critical water issues they face.

Combining the power of photography and science, NWNL, has spent 8 years documenting river basins in North America and Africa. The exhibit encourages viewers to translate images into questions. What are the impacts of our daily actions? How can we best protect our life-giving rivers and estuaries? Should we reduce resource consumption, require stronger pollution controls, minimize resource extraction, or forgo fossil fuels and material luxuries? How can we approach water as an opportunity for unity and cooperation, rather than a source of conflict?

Downstream impacts of new dams worry elders in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.
Downstream impacts of new dams worry elders in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.

NWNL believes the nexus of science and art, intellectual and physical resources, and local knowledge can effectively spread awareness of Nature’s unique interdependence and vulnerability of our watersheds’ glaciers, forests, wetlands, plains, estuaries, tributaries. Without raising that awareness, there will be no action.

The exhibit will be on view from March 14 through October 3, 2015.
Join us for a free public reception on Saturday, March 14 from 5-7 pm with Artists talks on April 11 and July 11, 2015 at Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, Clarkson University, 199 Main Street, Beacon, NY 12508 – (845) 838-1600. Gallery Hours: Tu-Th 9-5, Fri 9-1 Sat 12-6 (second Sat until 8)  Sun/Mon-Closed

Learn More about No Water No Life.

This event is part of a global campaign, celebrating International Day of Actions for Rivers.

Rivers in Africa and N America support migrations, but are also clogged by invasive species.
Rivers in Africa and N America support migrations, but are also clogged by invasive species.

Will the movie “DamNation” lead to the removal of the lower four Snake River Dams?

USA: WA, Columbia Snake River Basin, Garfield Co., Lower Granite Dam
USA: WA, Columbia Snake River Basin, Garfield Co., Lower Granite Dam

Since the release of the movie “DamNation” over a year ago, over 72 dams have been removed and over 730 miles of rivers were restored across the United States according to the non-profit conservation organization American Rivers. In January of this year, the producers of the movie met with members of Congress and White House officials regarding the removal of the lower four Snake River dams. Lower Granite is one.

NWNL documented the Snake River on an expedition last May interviewing stakeholders of the river including local farmers, an irrigation association, members of the Nez Perce Tribe, the manager of the Port of Lewiston, Idaho Power spokespersons and conservation organizations. Each group presented what the importance of the Snake River is to them. The only stakeholders we could not interview are the 13 species of salmon, the lamprey, the whales and other ocean-going creatures as well as the riparian vegetation that depend on an abundance of salmon to thrive. They are also voices of the river. Will some or all of the lower four dams be removed?  Check out the facts and myths page on the website of Save Our Wild Salmon. Further information about DamNation and its influence on dam removal is also available.

Blog post and photo by Barbara Briggs Folger.

Our Great Migrators

*NWNL thoughts prior to World Fish Migration Day-5/24.*

Many are unaware of the exquisite sarabande of life personified by our migratory species: anadromous fish, birds, monarch butterflies, dragonflies and others.

Most migratory species are threatened in one form or another during their annual passages by manmade impediments. Today, on expedition along the Snake River, NWNL is following the struggle of the Columbia River migratory salmon, steelhead and lamprey to overcome dams, pollution, warmer streams and other challenges as they seek their traditional spawning grounds. Fish passages at dams and fish hatcheries have helped them avoid extinction, but more help is needed to bring back healthy numbers of salmon.

US: Washington, Columbia River Basin, Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River, bypass for juvenile salmon migrating downstream.

A Desert Runs Through It – A Photographer’s View

By Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life ® and Photographer
As published by American Rivers in “The River Blog” – April 9, 2014

On the seventh day of exploring impacts of drought in California’s Central Valley, I slipped down some loose scree into a San Joaquin riverbed.  Shadows of Mendota’s bridge on San Mateo Road were lengthening.  That early-evening hush of the desert was overtaking the power of the sun’s heat.  There was just enough light to photograph a snake-like bed of sand swallowing
the San Joaquin River.

Jones_140317_CA_0946Sierra Nevada Mountain glaciers no longer melt into the basin of California’s long-lost Corcoran Lake of 750,000 years ago. That vast inland sea spilled into the Pacific half a million years ago, but it left a rich legacy. Over the last 10,000 years glacial melt, winter rains, Sierra snow carved the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and added further nutrients to one of the world’s most plentiful breadbaskets.

California, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge
California, San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Those rivers flowed freely until 1919 when human engineers began redesigning California into a sprawling network of levees, aqueducts, canals, pumps, dams and reservoirs. Today, the Central Valley Project (1930) and State Water Project (1957) supplies water to 22 million Californians, irrigates 4 million acres, and provides hydro-electricity, flood control and recreation.  Built in 1941, Fresno’s Friant Dam irrigates over a million acres of farmland, but it leaves 60 miles of the San Joaquin River dry.

San Joaquin River Valley, ripples from striped bass in this remnant of San Joaquin River
San Joaquin River Valley, ripples from striped bass in this remnant of San Joaquin River

“Picture a river running through a desert.  Now picture a desert running through a river.”  I read that concept two days earlier at the Delta Visitor Center. It was now in my camera’s viewfinder.  Amidst a whine of mosquitos, I considered this crippled river, nature’s persistence versus man’s ingenuity, and how one balances nature’s productivity with human productivity.

Sudden splashes from behind were an alert that I’d hiked out alone from a dirt road.  But then I saw telltale stripes flashing and fish thrashing, framed by willow roots in shallow water.

USA: San Mateo Road crossing of San Joaquin River
USA: San Mateo Road crossing of San Joaquin River

There were four or five – maybe even seven – each at least 18 inches long. Flipping over each other, they fled my shadow into the far end of their stagnant puddle, leaving me with only ripples to photograph.  Striped bass, introduced to the California Delta in the 1800’s, are a saltwater species that seek freshwater for spawning.

Can they survive this three-year drought?  It’s unlikely there’ll be further significant rain this year, so human intervention would be needed. That’s not likely, given today’s unprecedented clamoring for water by municipalities and farmers.

There are, however, signs of hope.  In 2009, Friant Dam began  “restoration flows,” released by water users’ negotiated agreements.  In December 2013, National Marine Fisheries Service announced it might re-introduce spring Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin.  Salmon thrive in big, broad rivers, but struggle in drought and heat. However, restored flows and recognition of common interests, suggest that Chinook salmon may again reach the Sierra Nevadas.

CA, Central Valley, Delta Mendota Canal, part of State Water Project
CA, Central Valley, Delta Mendota Canal, part of State Water Project

American Rivers’ 2014 focus is on the San Joaquin River.  With their efforts, coordinated with other stakeholders, the San Joaquin River between Mendota and Fresno will hopefully become more than a fish trap in desert sand.

>>> TAKE ACTION! Tell Congress to protect water flows
in the San Joaquin.