Archaeology and dams on the Nile: Merowe, Dal, and Kajbar

The previous entry, Waters of Uncertainty, referred to the conference Age of Uncertainty at the University of Bergen. For millennia, the flow of the Nile has been a certain feature of the landscape of northern Sudan and Egypt. Archaeologists have documented how the slow drying up of the Green Sahara since the end of the last Glacial Age 12 000 years ago has made the Nile an artery of life to which people and animals retreated. The flow of the mighty river was a certainty, although the exact amount of the annual flood of the Nile was uncertain: would it be enormous and destructive, fitting and productive, or small and insufficient?

Dirbi Island, Fourth Cataract

With the arrival of the British in the Nile Valley in the 19th century, this changed for Egypt. The old Aswan Dam was finished in 1898, and the stored water in the magazine could now be evenly distributed throughout the year and between years with massive floods and years with small floods. However, the demands for water soon outgrew the water stored by the old dam, which was heightened in 1911 and 1934. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built, which also provided hydroelectricity. The dams at Aswan are partly responsible for the enormous population growth in Egypt – from 4 million people in the 1890s to 83 million people today. The disadvantage of this increase is that Egypt, once the breadbasket of the ancient world, is now unable to feed its own population.

Much ink has been spilt on the negative consequences of the dams, but this has not discouraged the present Sudanese government to build a giant dam on the Nile for themselves with the assistance of their new friends – the Chinese.

The way that archaeologists were entangled in the politics of the project of the Merowe Dam is the topic of the “freshly pressed” article by Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos:

Ethical implications of salvage archaeology and dam building: The clash between archaeologists and local people in Dar al-Manasir, Sudan


“The controversial Merowe Dam was inaugurated by the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, in March 2009. The reservoir of the dam had then already flooded a large stretch of the fertile Nile valley, which required the forced resettlement of up to 78,000 people. During the construction period of the dam, foreign archaeologists were surveying and excavating in order to save the cultural heritage of the land to be flooded. This article addresses the ethical implications of conducting salvage archaeology when the local people are in opposition to the development project that necessitates both their resettlement and the archaeological salvage.”


How is the issue of dam building linked to Sai Island? Sai is actually also threatened with submergence if the proposed dam on the Dal Cataract is implemented. During our survey of Sai in 2009, we also came across numerous anti-dam slogans painted on house walls.

Some of them are in English, like this one (with Jebel Abri in the background).

Others are in Arabic, like this one saying ‘No to Dal, no to Kajbar’ – Kajbar being the locality of another proposed dam upstream from Sai.

The dam opponents in northern Sudan have received minimal support from the outside world – perhaps due to the (incorrect) view that all the people of the north are equal with the exploitive government of Khartoum.

Although local people and archaeologists failed to cooperate to stop the Merowe Dam on the Fourth Cataract, we wish the Friends of Lake Turkana strength and persistence in their fight against the Ethiopian and Chinese governments aiming to build a giant dam on the Omo river in southern Ethiopia.,38039

It seems that many riverine people of Northeast Africa may face an uncertain future as the governments of Sudan and Ethiopia invite Chinese capital and bulldozers to dam the rivers that flow through their societies.

This entry was posted in dams and alternative energy, Sai Island. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Archaeology and dams on the Nile: Merowe, Dal, and Kajbar

  1. chirine nour says:

    is there a petition form to sign about the friends of sai island?
    it’s so sad all that spoiling…

  2. Henriette says:

    This is a very good idea! If the plans for the dam start to be implemented, we should certainly set up one! Check the link below for the protest by the Commitee of the Anti Dal Kajbar Dams.

  3. Pingback: The American Committee for Nubian Heritage (From EEF)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.