In a burning hot moonscape, huge machines and hundreds of workers are toiling round the clock to create a vast monument in the desert. This is Egypt, but the structure is not pyramid, a funeral monument for the Kingdom of the Dead; its aim is to bring life.
In four years' time the huge Mubarak pumping station, possibly the world's largest, will pour millions of cubic metres of water into a canal winding across the desert in southern Egypt, creating a vast new area of green fields and small towns. Seven million people will make their homes in the Toshka region's $1.8bn South Valley Development Project.
But creating the oasis, a personal dream of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is tough work. The south of Egypt is hostile, especially in summer when temperatures rise to an almost unbelievable 50degreesC plus. And desert zone is barren relieved only by the nearby Lake Nasser, the Nile reservoir held back by the giant Aswan High Dam.
'All we have round here are donkeys, pelicans and a few fishermen,' says Eddie McEwan, project director for Norwegian- owned British contractor Kvaerner Construction. 'It is the remotest place I have been in my life.'
Kvaerner is lead contractor with a 48% stake in a consortium of three firms carrying out the $435M design and build project. Local firm Arabian International Construction (AIC) has a 27% stake and Japan's Hitachi 25%. The latter's contribution are the 21, 16.7m3/sec capacity pumps which will lift 25M.m3/day of water from Lake Nasser, a height of 50m into the 70km long Sheikh Zayed Canal. AIC is concentrating on the pumping station excavation and concreting while Kvaerner is responsible for the giant intake channel.
Kvaerner has German engineer Lahmeyer on board along with Egyptian firm Hansa. The client, the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works & Water Resources has appointed French firm Sogreah as checking engineer.
According to McEwan, the channel is of unprecedented size and capacity for an inland project. It is nearly 50m deep, trapezoidal in cross-section and extends 4.7km out into Lake Nasser. The first 1.6km length is being built in the dry but the rest must be excavated through the sloping bed of the lake.
'We have built a sheet pile cofferdam at chainage 1,600m,' he says, so that some work can proceed in the dry. Local firm, Egyptian Group for Construction has been subcontracted for this section, and its Caterpillar D10 and D9 dozers plus a pair of Komatsu 475s tackle the rock which is loaded by 10 Caterpillar 996 face shovels into a 35 strong fleet of MAN and Mercedes trucks.
Unsurprisingly the ground consists mainly of medium to medium to soft sandstone. There are also layers of siltstone and claystone and bands of very hard ironstone in places.
For the longer, underwater section Kvaerner is using two huge Liebherr backhoes mounted on dredgers. The first, a 380t P995 capable of digging to a maximum 27m, is already working. The second is being assembled after its long journey from Liebherr's Colmar factory in France. The 480t P996 is one of the largest excavators on the market, and is McEwan says, 'fundamentally awesome'.
Bringing in the units has been one of the big challenges of the job, says McEwan. 'The supply chain into here is problematical.' A specially built project road leads to the site from Abu Simbel, site of the temple of Ramses II, but that is only the last 250km of the long journey from the Red Sea.
Machines, and sections of the split hopper barges being used for spoil transfer, were offloaded at Safaga port after negotiating the Suez Canal. The loads, weighing up to 90t, had to pass down a coast road and traverse a number of villages before embarking on the 230km desert crossing. The high temperatures caused frequent tyre blow outs on the multi-axle carriers.
'But the elements are not simply heavy, but bulky,' says McEwan. Some items were as much as 8m across and this created problems travelling through villages and small communities. McEwan says the priority given to the project by President Mubarak has helped, and communities were highly co-operative, moving lamp- posts, walls and small huts to get loads through. Kvaerner built a small bypass around one village.
The pontoon for the 996 was being fabricated in October at a small shipyard at Aswan. Despite the seemingly remote location near the Sudanese border, the workmanship is astonishingly good, says McEwan. Liebherr has an engineer permanently on site to help get the highly computerised machines up and running, and cope with any problems caused by the high temperatures.
The specially equipped P996 will operate a maximum depth of 38m, which Liebherr claims as a world record. At this depth bucket capacity will be a mere 3m3 rather than the standard 10m3. Breakout force is still an impressive 450kN. 'We will also do some blasting in the deeper parts of the channel' says McEwan. A Rohr grab dredger will be used to muck out the deepest part.
Bringing in the plant and equipment has cost Kvaerner more time than it would like and it is a 'notional few months' behind on the wet excavation, says McEwan. He is confident that the time can be made up, especially now the cooler season has started. In the hottest season, midday work is ruled out and night shifts are necessary. The dry work is going well and 2M.m3 of a 10M.m3 excavation has been completed. There is another three years to run.
Meanwhile AIC has completed the excavation for the pumping station itself and is beginning work on the 200 000m3 of concrete work. Concrete is produced on site in a pair of Elba and Erbau batching plants. The consortium also produces its own aggregates which are stockpiled in the shade and sprayed with chilled water before mixing. During next summer's high temperatures the ice-making plant will come on stream to provide cooling for the concrete.