Since the end of World War II, some 8,000 people have died as a result of active landmines in Egypt s North Coast and Western Desert. Over the past 60 years, ordnance in both Sinai and the Western Desert have served as an impediment to developmental projects that might otherwise function as alleviation to Egypt s growing population problem, as well as a location for tourist attractions, agricultural land and land for processing gas and oil.
In an effort to expand communities out into the unused desert land, the Ministry of International Cooperation, in collaboration with government and private partners, namely the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has created the Demining for Development Project.
The 20 year plan, headed by the National Committee for Supervising Landmine Clearance and the Development of the Northwestern Coast, works to make the demining process an absolute priority when designating land for development. UNDP had already been involved in similar demining projects in Lebanon and Jordan, and so was able to quickly lend its expertise to the project in Egypt. As metropolitan areas in Egypt stretch into areas like 6th of October City, El-Qatamaya, the Delta and Sinai, the government insists that a delay in removing between 16 and 23 million active landmines still in the North Coast and Western Desert comes at a great expense.
In 2000, we sent a fact finding mission to the North Coast and the major finding of that mission was that landmines are posing a development threat, explains Naglaa Arafa, a program analyst with UNDP involved in Demining for Development. When we think of landmines, we think of them in the Western area because of the constraint on development. The North Coast has a large potential for tourism.
Two major conflicts are to blame for most of the landmines in Egypt. During World War II, battles fought between the British and allied forces against the Germans and Italians along the Northwest coast between 1940 and 1943 are blamed for the majority of the landmines in Egypt. More recently, the struggle for Sinai between Egypt and Israel between 1956 and 1973 contaminated much of the land with explosive devices. The government estimates as much as 25,000 sq kilometers of land has remains affected in all.
The resources are tremendous. Government researchers estimate that approximately 3 million feddans of the northwestern coast and inland desert area are suitable for cultivation and pastures. Groundwater reservoirs in the area amount to some 1 billion cubic meters. As for petroleum and mineral resources, roughly 4.8 million barrels of petroleum and 13.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are available in the region. Not to mention, the land is also suitable for wildlife reserves, and offers a number of archeological, environmental and astronomical activities suitable for tourism.
As host to both battles blamed for the original placement of landmines, Egypt cannot ask the countries associated with them to clean up their mess. Therefore, the Egyptian Armed Forces has been given the task of demining, with the assistance of donors and partners. To do so, they need the appropriate technical and logistical training for carrying out this mission.
Proper training is certainly a huge undertaking, admits Arafa. What about the information system they have? They have to monitor mine clearance, the technology and training, they must know how to do it efficiently. Definitely there is a need for capacity building on this point. We organized a seminar some time ago on how to do it better.
Identifying the precise location of the mines remains a challenge. Maps originally drawn up to document the exact placement have been lost or destroyed over time. Consequently, some of the devises have since been buried in the sand horizontally or vertically, or have shifted under the sand over time. The composition of many of the mines has also evolved with the accumulation of mud, sand and rain, both inside and around them.
Technically, there is a lot at stake. According to Ambassador Marawan Badr with the Ministry of International Cooperation, technology that is efficient, while at the same time safe and economic is essential for such an undertaking. A machine, for example, which is designed to dig for mines in the rocky terrains of Afghanistan, may not work efficiently in the clay-covered Western Desert or the fertile North Coast. Badr says such a machine might waste time detecting other metal objects, or prematurely set off a landmine, thus risking the lives of those workers.
Four governorates are included in the Demining for Development project which are Alexandria, Marsa Matruh, New Valley and part of the Giza governorate. The area around El-Alamein, where allied forces prompted the surrender of the German military in North Africa in May 1943, is believed to be the most tainted region in Egypt with some 12 million landmines.
Funding for the required demining operations in the area is estimated at $250 million (LE 1.4 billion), which the government predicts is only 2.5 percent the total expected investments in the area. Of the estimated cost of removal, the government is expected to contribute 33 percent, the private sector 48 percent. Foreign direct investments will make up roughly 14 percent the total cost.
Before, all we could do is develop this thin line of land along the coast, recalls Arafa. Now, we have got to go deeper, and to do that, we must de-mine.
The De-mining for Development project has not yet been implemented in Egypt. Badr expects that the first phase of the program will kick off within the coming weeks. The government says, the longer the project is delayed, the longer this massive natural resource will go to waste.