I think an argument can be made that the construction of the Aswan High Dam along the Nile in Egypt was the most botched river engineering project in history. The dam was built in the 1950s largely as a political boondoggle for then-Egyptian strongman leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since ancient times the regular and periodic flooding of the Nile brought rich nutrients to the river valleys, which enabled Egyptian civilization to flourish. The Nile was also subject to wild uncontrollable floods, which the Aswan High Dam was meant to prevent. The dam would create a large lake in the south of Egypt, which Nasser conveniently named after himself. What was not anticipated at first was that the dam would also flood areas where several priceless cultural resources were located, such as the Temple of Abu Simbel. In order to save the monuments an emergency rescue operation was conducted by UNESCO which took the monuments apart brick by brick and relocated them to another site.
In addition to this unintended effect, the Aswan High Dam flooded out 60,000 people in Nubia who had to be relocated. The life-giving silts of the Nile, responsible for the entire Egyptian civilization, now don’t make it downriver, instead building up in deposits behind the dam. Because these silts no longer make it to the farmlands of the lower Nile, irrigation and chemical fertilizers have to be used, increasing the degradation of Egypt’s environment. The creation of the dam also killed Egypt’s largest source of fresh water fish and even increased the salinity of the Mediterranean Sea, which affects the outflow of the Mediterranean’s current through the Strait of Gibraltar. As if all these effects are not enough, the dam has also caused the breakdown of the once-fertile Nile Delta, resulting in large pools of standing salt water that are breeding grounds for a deadly parasite called bilharzia.
In short, aside from some temporary flood control and enhancing Nasser’s resume, the Aswan High Dam has been a perfect example of how not to undertake a river diversion project.
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