How Egypt's dams serve the nation but left tens of thousands of Nubians without a home

While the Aswan dams regulated the Nile, provided electricity and increased water security, they came at the cost of the displacement of Nubian people

Hamza Abdel Rasool, 41, a native of Nubia in southern Egypt, makes his living ferrying people across the Nile. Hamza Hendawi for The National
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

Hamza Abdel Rasool cuts a forlorn figure as he sits in the bow of his motorised boat, keeping it steady in the choppy waters between the Aswan Low Dam and the High Dam — two giant structures built in the 1900s in an effort to control the flooding of the Nile Basin.

“For all I know there are maybe homes underneath this very water here,” says the 41-year-old Nubian. “There used to be narrow water channels running between the mainland and the islands in this area, not this vast mass of water you see here.”

Abdel Rasool is a father of two who makes his living ferrying visitors and locals across the water in an area near the southern city of Aswan known simply as the Reservoir.

It’s a scenic spot of deep blue water from which visitors and local commuters can see hilly islands partially ringed by majestic rock formations and dotted with homes painted in cheerful bright colours — an enduring Nubian tradition — evidence of a unique way of life that was upended decades ago.

Nubian evictions made necessary after flooding caused by dam construction

Tens of thousands of Nubians were forcefully evicted throughout most of the last century to make way for lakes behind the Aswan Low Dam — built in 1902 and enlarged in 1912 and 1926 — and the Soviet-built Aswan High Dam, which led to the formation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s.

The evictions linked to Aswan High Dam, the construction of which was completed more than 50 years ago, were by far the most extensive. At the time, the government of nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the state media painted it as a process to which Nubians willingly agreed as a sacrifice for the nation’s greater good and so they could leave behind a life of deprivation and hardship and make a fresh start elsewhere.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Long before the evictions, leaving home in search for work elsewhere in Egypt or farther afield in the Gulf region or Europe was an integral part of Nubian male culture, a choice they made to better provide for their families. But they regularly returned home, commonly referred to as the old country, or “el balad el adeem”, to visit family, wed a childhood sweetheart, look for a suitable bride or merely take a break.

When at home, they sought to relive the customs and hobbies with which they grew up, from swimming in the Nile and rowing rickety boats to crocodile hunting and playing tambourines.

But leaving home involuntarily to never return for a community whose life intertwined so closely with the Nile since time immemorial was deeply traumatic for many Nubians alive today. Their predicament, felt even by Nubians born in the diaspora, inspired endless angst-filled song lyrics that spoke of a home lost forever and many literary works. Just as importantly, it enshrined a sense of persecution or a culture under siege.

“We still dream of returning,” says Fahd, a Nubian father of two in his late 30s, who wanted to be identified only by his first name. “But, I will be honest with you, it’s a dream to elderly Nubians much more than it is to young ones.

“Many of us sold the land near the 44 villages they had taken us to in the 1960s and left for well-paid jobs in the Gulf,” says Fahd, who was born in Cairo but is a fluent Nubian speaker. “I speak to my children about Nubia, the evictions and the sacrifices we made for the sake of our nation.”

Construction of the High Dam and the creation of the Lake Nasser reservoir have been an invaluable service to Egypt in terms of regulating the flow of the Nile, safeguarding water security and providing sustainable energy. Their positive outcomes are widely perceived to outweigh the damage it did to the ancient Nubian community.

The dam and the lake combined to generate electricity to power homes and factories, vastly increased the nation’s farmland and put a stop to the destruction caused by the Nile’s annual flooding.

Just how vital the dam and Lake Nasser are to Egypt has come into focus again over the past few years after upstream rival Ethiopia began filling a giant dam it is building on the Nile. The annual fillings — three so far — have denied Egypt about 20 billion cubic metres of water, but plentiful rainfall on the Ethiopian highlands meant that Lake Nasser has remained full to or near capacity, allowing the nation’s key agricultural sector not to be disrupted.

However, Egypt remains uneasy that a reduced share of the Nile water would inflict untold damage on its agriculture, disrupting its food balance and wiping out millions of jobs.

How the Nile and the land are inherently connected to Nubian culture

Nubians are an ancient ethnic group whose ancestral land stretches from southern Egypt to northern Sudan. They became rulers for a period in the 25th Dynasty 3,000 years ago. Darker skinned than most Egyptians, their language and culture also distinguishes them from the rest of the country and means they are sometimes discriminated against.

Their bond to the river makes them by far the most Nilotic of Egyptians.

They baptised their children in the river’s waters. Grooms would bathe in the river before they wed. On holidays they would float dishes of food on its current to the river’s mythical guardians.

Although Muslim, Nubians have kept traditions rooted in their Christian past, still praying for Jesus and Mary to bless them alongside their supplications to the Prophet Mohammed.

That glorious past continues to motivate some Nubians to demand on social media — perhaps the only platform where a level of free speech is tolerated — to be resettled in the reclamation projects undertaken by the government in the desert on the banks of Lake Nasser near their old homes.

They also sense the danger stalking their heritage.

Hope for the future and the preservation of culture

Nubians are teaching children the Nubian language and have recently launched a YouTube channel where only Nubian is spoken.

They found a ray of hope when the writers of a new constitution in 2014 included a clause that for the first time recognised Nubians as an ethnic group and obliged the state to organise their return to traditional lands and develop those areas by 2024.

But it remains an uphill battle in today’s Egypt, where there is little tolerance for dissent or political activism. Their effort is also impeded by the worries and challenges of everyday life, the passage of time and a growing tendency among young Nubians to let go of the past and seek integration with the rest of Egypt.

"The evictions hurt to this day," says Nubian prize-winning novelist Haggag Oddoul, 79. "They will never be forgotten," he tells The National.

"But I am optimistic in the long term. Already 10-year-old boys and girls in the diaspora say 'I am a Nubian from Alexandria' or 'I am a Nubian from Cairo'. I love those double identities. It's difficult to imagine that a Nubian child in the 21st century will forget his or her heritage," says Oddoul, who took part in drafting the 2014 constitution and fought for including the clause on Nubia.

Abdel Rasool is among the more fortunate of Nubians. The island on which he was born, Awad, remained above water when the nearby Aswan Low Dam was built. But life on Awad was so difficult without basic services that most of its inhabitants packed up and left, many settling on the nearby and prosperous island of Heisa.

“My father never concerned himself with anything except feeding us, putting clothes on our backs and getting us an education,” he says on a cool afternoon as an orange sun lights the horizon against a cloudless blue sky and the walls of the ancient Egyptian temple of Philae stand out across the water from the reservoir.

Like Abdel Rasool, many Nubians who stayed in the old country are making a living off tourism, turning old homes into boutique hotels offering a taste of Nubian cuisine and culture and running pleasure cruises on the river.

In the Nubian village of Gharb Suheil on the west bank of the Nile, within sight of the older dam, the local bazaar selling a range of goods including straw bags, spices and ornaments is packed in the morning and early evening with foreign and local visitors, who stay indoors for the rest of the daylight hours to escape the punishing heat.

Animated episodes of haggling in Spanish, English and French between vendors and tourists fill the air. And every now and again, the narrow dusty alley that runs between the shops is shaken by speeding camels ridden by tourists, sending shoppers scrambling to get out of the way.

“It has been a good season so far,” Abdel Rasool says. “Tourists finally came back. The Covid years were hard for all of us here in Aswan.”

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Updated: May 05, 2023, 7:24 AM