Landmines cost lives, hinder development in Egypt
CAIRO - Landmines planted decades ago in vast oil-rich areas of western and northern Egypt take lives, hamper development and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues, experts said.
An estimated 23 million landmines — most of them anti-personnel devices — were planted in the western desert, near the Suez Canal and in the Sinai peninsula during World War II and Egypt’s repeated wars with Israel.
“Vast territories are falling off development plans made by successive governments because of the presence of the landmines,” said Magdy Diab, the head of Arab Society for Assisting Mine-Affected Areas. “This causes untold economic losses to our country.”
Most of the landmines were planted in areas with great oil and mineral wealth. The international mine-clearing initiative Minesweepers said. Minesweepers works with governments, using modern technology and robots, to demine fields. Only 14% of oil and natural gas fields are utilised in Egypt’s north coast, for example, because of the landmines, the initiative said.
Landmines in Egypt amount to 20% of all landmines deployed throughout the world. Egypt has the world’s fifth highest number of anti-personnel landmines planted per square mile, according to the initiative.
Ordinary Egyptians, such as Fadl al-Amin, a 38-year-old former shepherd, pay dearly for the presence of these landmines.
The last time Amin used his left leg was in 2010 when he herded sheep near an oil exploration field in the north-western province of Marsa Matrouh. After a deafening blast, he suddenly lost consciousness. He awakened a few hours later and was told that doctors had had to amputate his left leg.
“This was a black day,” Amin said. “I didn’t think there would be landmines in this area because an oil company was working in close proximity.”
Landmines were hidden in the western desert during World War II when the British occupied Egypt and used the weapons to fend off Italian and German troops trying to invade from Libya in the west and the Mediterranean in the north.
The government says it has destroyed as many as 315,000 landmines but that is only a fraction of the landmines deployed.
Government efforts to demine fields near the Suez Canal and in the Sinai peninsula have allowed for economic development, said Fathi el-Shazly, who heads a government body for minefield clearance.
Referring to major development projects in the Suez Canal region, Shazly added that removing landmines from the region would encourage industrial development and attract investment.
The government said it is contacting the governments of Italy, Germany and Britain to help in the demining. However, since most of the landmines were planted more than 60 years ago, the devices are often covered with thick deposits of mud or sand, which makes it difficult for conventional detection techniques to find them.
Experts like Diab also said landmines can shift location over time and, due to weather conditions, the soil type can pose a challenge to mine detection and clearance.
“There are also hundreds of landmine types here,” Diab said. “Mines can have different types of casings and these casings must have been degraded over time, altering their detection signature.”
Egypt does not have maps for most of the minefields and available maps are often of little use due to the nature of the dusty soil in affected areas.
Britain was reported to have provided Egypt with minefield maps but Germany and Italy have not, although they support mine-clearance efforts with equipment and training.
The absence of minefield maps and demining challenges means the weapons are still killing a large number of people in Egypt’s vast deserts. The government says around 3,200 people have been killed and 4,723 others injured because of landmines in the past 25 years. Non-governmental organisations say, however, the numbers are far larger.
Amin used to earn a living by herding sheep but he lost his job after he lost his leg. Now, he is jobless and feeds his six children with the approximately $50 he receives from the government in support every month.
“I lost everything the day I ran over this landmine,” Amin said. “It all happened in a second but left me with suffering for the rest of my life.”