The Aswa¯n Dam was the cornerstone of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s program for Egyptian economic development. Nasser described the project as “more magnificent and seventeen times greater than the Pyramids.” The dam was to improve the living standard for Egyptians by increasing agricultural output and providing electricity for Egyptian villages and power for industrialization. The dam increased reclaimed agricultural land by onethird and provided 10,000 million kilowatt hours of electricity. Nasser Lake, one of the world’s largest artificial lakes at about 300 miles long, was created as a result of the dam.
The dam was over 120 feet high and a mile wide and was one of the most extensive projects in the world at the time. However, the dam also had some unforeseen ecological impacts. Because it was no longer flushed by annual floodwater, Egyptian agricultural land increased in salinity. The decrease of Nile floodwater into the Mediterranean resulted in a decrease of plankton, organic carbons, and fish. Advocates of smaller, more cost-effective projects argued that the massive amounts of money expended in construction of the dam might have been better spent in more appropriate technology projects.
The dam provided Egyptians with a sense of pride, however, and from Nasser’s viewpoint was a project around which Egyptians could be rallied for other political and economic programs. Originally money and technology to build the dam was to come from the World Bank and Western nations, particularly the United States. But after Nasser adopted a policy of neutralism in the cold war, recognized the People’s Republic of China, and signed an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, John Foster Dulles, the U.S. secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration, concluded that Nasser was not a reliable ally.
Consequently Dulles withdrew U.S. aid for the project and publicly criticized Egypt’s economic stability. Dulles hoped that the failure to secure economic aid for the dam would result in Nasser’s overthrow. On the contrary Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal, announcing that the income from the canal would be used to build the dam. The nationalization infuriated Great Britain and France and helped to precipitate the 1956 Arab-Israeli War.
Ultimately the Soviet Union provided the money and technicians to build the dam. The dam was completed in the early 1970s after Nasser’s death. But Soviet influence over Egypt was short-lived for President Anwar el-Sadat, Nasser’s successor, ousted the Soviets shortly after the dam’s completion and turned instead toward the West and the United States.