On This Day

aswan high dam, aswan dam ceremony, aswan dam ribbon cutting, aswan dam khrushchev, aswan nasser
Associated Press
Nikita Khrushchev, standing with Gamal Abdal Nasser, cuts the ribbon to open the first stage of the Russian-financed Aswan High Dam, May 14, 1964.

On This Day: Egypt’s Aswan Dam Completed

January 15, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 15, 1971, Egypt celebrated the completion of the Aswan High Dam; the dam’s funding was the center of a Cold War dispute that led to the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Sadat Celebrates Completion of Aswan High Dam

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Located on the Upper Nile, 600 miles downstream from Cairo, the Aswan High Dam was completed in July 1970 after 10 years of construction. Nearly five times the size of the Hoover Dam, it was built to provide electricity and control the area’s annual flood.

At the lavish dedication ceremony, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat cut the ceremonial ribbon as a band played and doves were released. In attendance was Nikolai Podgorny, head of the Soviet legislature, as the USSR had lent $554 million towards the dam’s $800-million construction.

“But for a rash U.S. decision,” wrote Time. “Richard Nixon might have been on the platform instead of Podgorny.”

The United States, along with Britain and the World Bank, had originally offered to provide $268 million to fund the dam’s construction. But when President Gamal Abdel Nasser sought assistance from the Soviet Union, Washington quickly withdrew its offer and Britain and the World Bank followed suit.

In a speech at the opening ceremony, Sadat praised the Soviet Union for its support and took shots at the U.S. “Their broken and unfulfilled promise concerning the High Dam is a link in a continuous chain which leaves us in no doubt that what we see is an American political line inimical to the aspirations of the Arab people, and threatening the legitimate ambitions which constitute peaceful development building for life and not wasting itself in war,” he said.

Background: The Suez Crisis

After the United States and Britain decided to pull funding for the Aswan High Dam in 1956, President Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal that links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It had been under British protection since the 19th century and had developed into a vital passageway for oil.

Britain believed that it could not afford to lose control of the canal. Prime Minister Anthony Eden developed a plot with France and Israel—without alerting the U.S.—to regain control of the canal. Under the plan, Israel would invade Egypt and Britain and France would step in to “protect” the canal.

Israel invaded on Oct. 29, 1956; the following day, Britain and France issued an ultimatum to both sides to end the fighting. The plan likely would have succeeded if not for the disapproval of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Angered that Britain and France were disrupting relations in the Middle East, he ordered them to evacuate, which they did in December.

The Suez Crisis is commonly cited as the end of two imperial powers; it “meant that no longer could Britain—or France—act alone on the world stage,” writes the BBC’s Paul Reynolds. Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, determined that Britain must closely ally itself with the U.S. at all times and “Since then, Britain has been reluctant to oppose any US policy.” France, meanwhile, moved away from Britain and the U.S. and towards Germany and continental Europe.

The war’s ultimate victors,” writes Wilfred P. Deac in Military History magazine, “were Egypt and the Soviet Union. Nasser, who left to himself might never have gained the stature he did, emerged a hero of the Muslim world. Egypt’s ownership of the Suez Canal was affirmed. The Soviet Union, after long peering through the keyhole of a closed door on what it considered a Western sphere of influence, now found itself invited over the threshold as a friend of the Arabs.”

The Ecological Effects of Aswan

The dam is hailed as one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times and it has been beneficial to Egyptian agriculture and industry. However, there have been some ecological drawbacks.

Before the dam was built, the banks of the Nile were flooded once a year with fertile silt and sediments; those sediments now remain behind the dam at the bottom of Lake Nasser. This has caused erosion along the coast and less fertile coastal waters for fish and other organisms.

Related Topic: Flooding of the Philae Temples

The Temples of Philae, one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions, had been partially submerged in water for over 50 years after the Aswan Low Dam was built. Before the construction of the High Dam, which would have fully submerged the monument, the temples were dismantled and moved piece by piece to the nearby island of Agilika.

Reference: The Suez Canal today

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