From 1940 to 1943, soldiers led by Nazi Germany's Gen. Erwin Rommel, also dubbed the "Desert Fox," battled Allied troops all over North Africa. While Rommel's Africa Corps was eventually driven out of the continent, in Egypt, the dangerous leftovers of World War II -- and of the Egypt-Israel wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 -- are more than 20 million landmines, grenades and bombs that are waiting below the surface to cause havoc if they go off.
That pins Egypt next to Afghanistan as one of the most heavily mined countries in the word, the online version of Der Spiegel said earlier this week.
Most of the explosives are located in Egypt's northwest near el-Alamein, where the British army in late 1942 battled and eventually defeated Rommel's troops, forcing them all the way back to Tunisia. In 2006 the U.N. Development Program reported that since the end of World War II, approximately 8,000 people have died as a result of land mines in Egypt's northwest alone.
Besides human lives, there are further costs connected to the presence of explosives.
Here, in the northwestern deserts, lie buried rich reserves of oil, natural gas and ores, the exploration of many of which is complicated because of the explosives in the ground.
Roughly 1 billion cubic meters of underground water reserves are made inaccessible by the presence of mines and unexploded remnants of war, or EWR, and similar inaccessibility exists for roughly 4.8 million barrels of oil and 13.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to an April 2006 article published in Beirut's Daily Star newspaper.
Over the past 15 years, more than 180 petroleum exploration agreements have been signed and multinational oil companies spent more than $27 billion in exploration companions. However, the presence of mines and EWR in Egypt's northwest seriously hampers greater oil and gas exploration and thus delays future findings. The Egyptian military has cleared the ground of some 3 million land mines so far, but the program has been lagging because of a lack of funding, Der Spiegel said.
At the Cairo Land Mines Conference held in December 2005, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the president of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights and a former U.N. secretary-general, said "the existence of large numbers of land mines near the northwestern coast (of Egypt) impedes development and causes serious health and environmental damage."
It also complicates the region's transition into a popular tourist hub, as desired by several Egyptian investors, who want to turn the Mediterranean coast of el-Alamein into a luxury resort for rich Europeans similar to the one already flourishing in Sharm-el-Sheik. Der Spiegel said an Egyptian investor wants to pump some $500 million to make that vision a reality.
The Egyptian government also has ambitious plans for the region: It wants to make some areas into agricultural hubs, "mainly for barley and vegetables," Der Spiegel writes, to then move some 1.5 million people there from the busy Nile delta. Again, the explosives are the biggest hurdle to that plan.
It's not that there has been zero exploration near el-Alamein, though: There has been extensive production in the Qattara Depression, a 7,000-square-mile basin within the Libyan Desert. Thanks to its special geographic features -- which include salt lakes, extremely high cliffs or escarpments -- the depression was impassable for the German and British tanks. Thus, Qattara is mine-free.
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