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View of the Qattara Depression
The Qattara Depression ( Munḫafaḍ al-Qaṭṭārah) is a desert basin within the Libyan Desertmarker of northwestern Egyptmarker. The Depression, at 133 m below sea level, contains the second lowest point in Africa (The lowest being Lake Assalmarker in Djiboutimarker). The Depression covers about 18,000 km² (7,000 square miles), a size comparable to Lake Ladogamarker, and at its maximum is 80 km in length and 120 km in width. The bottom of the depression consists of a salt pan.

Qattara Depression

Within the Depression there are saline marshes under the northwestern and northern escarpment edges, and extensive dry lakes (dry lake beds) that flood occasionally. The major oasis in the depression, Moghra oasis, is uninhabited and has a 4 km² brackish lake, including a Phragmites swamp. Salt marshes also occur and occupy approximately 300 km², although wind blown sands are encroaching in some areas. About one-quarter (26 percent) of the 19,500 km² area is occupied by dry lakes composed of hard crust and sticky mud, and occasionally filled with water.

Sand dunes in the Qattara Depression
Groves of Acacia raddiana represent the only permanent vegetation, growing in shallow sandy depressions. The Acacia groves vary widely in biodiversity and rely on runoff from the rainfall and groundwater to survive.

The Depression is an important habitat for the cheetah, with the largest number of recent sightings being in areas in the northern, western and northwestern part of the Qattara Depression, including the highly isolated, wild oases of Ein EI Qattara and Ein EI Ghazzalat and numerous Acacia groves both inside and outside the depression.

Gazelles (Gazella dorcas and Gazella leptoceros) also inhabit the Qattara Depression, being an important food source for the cheetah. The largest gazelle population exists in the southwestern part of the Qattara Depression within a vast area of wetlands and soft sand. The area is 900 km², includes the wild oases of Hatiyat Tabaghbagh and Hatiyat Umm Kitabain, and is a mosaic of lakes, salt marshes, scrubland, wild palm groves and Desmostachya bipinnata grassland.

Other common fauna include the Cape Hare (Lepus capensis), Egyptian Jackal (Canis aureus hupstar), Sand Fox (Vulpes rueppelli) and more rarely the Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda).

Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia) were once common throughout but now are few in numbers. Extinct species from the area include the Scimitar Oryx (Oryx dammah), Addax (Addax nasomaculatus) and Bubal Hartebeest (Aclelaphus buselaphus).

There are no human settlements in the Qattara Depression. However the Depression is inhabited by the nomadic Bedouin people and their flocks, with the Moghra oasis being important in times of water scarcity and dry seasons.

World War II

During World War II the Depression was considered impassable by tanks and most other military vehicles. Its presence shaped the Battle of El Alameinmarker. The features that made the Depression so impassable include its salt lakes, high cliffs or escarpments, and Fech fech (very fine powdered sand). The cliffs in particular abutted the edge of the El Alamein battlefield, which meant the British position could not be outflanked.

The 1958 film Ice-Cold in Alex features the Depression during World War II.


In 1957 the American Central Intelligence Agency proposed to President Dwight Eisenhower that peace in the Middle East could be achieved by flooding the Qattara Depression. The resulting lagoon, according to the CIA, would have four benefits: (1) it would be "spectacular and peaceful," (2) it would "materially alter the climate in adjacent areas," (3) it would "provide work during construction and living areas after completion for the Palestinian Arabs," and (4) the project would get Egyptianmarker president Gamel Abdel Nasser's "mind on other matters" because "he need[ed] some way to get off the Sovietmarker Hook." The project was never undertaken.

Hydroelectric possibilities

Plans to use the Qattara Depression for the generation of electricity date back to 1912 and a Berlin geographer, Professor Penk. The subject was discussed in more detail by Dr. John Ball in 1927.. Present day scientists still explore the viability such a project, as a key to resolving economic, population, and ecological stresses in the area.

The Qattara Depression is composed of sand dunes and salt lake in a teardrop-shaped formation with the point of the drop facing east and the broad deep area at the south west end. The large size of the Qattara Depression and the fact that it falls to a depth of 132 m below mean sea level has led to several proposals to create a massive hydroelectric project in northern Egypt rivaling the Aswan High Dammarker. The proposals all call for a large channel or tunnel being excavated from the Qattara due north about 80 km to the Mediterranean Seamarker or to the near-by Nile River. Water would flow from the channel into a series of hydro-electric penstocks which would release the water at 90 m below sea level. Because the Qattara is in a very hot dry region with very little cloud cover the water released at the 90 m level would spread out from the release point across the basin until evaporating from solar influx. Because the depression is so deep and broad, a great deal of water would be let in to maintain the artificial salt sea at the 90 m level and as the water evaporates more sea water would be sent through the penstocks to generate more electricity.


  1. "CIA Suggestions," Document Number CK3100127026, reproduced in Declassified Documents Reference System, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2009
  2. Murakami, Masahiro, "Managing water for peace in the Middle East: alternative strategies‎", 1995
  3. Ball, John, "Problems of the Libyan Desert: Geographical Journal", 1927
  4. Mahmoud, Mohamed, "The River Nile - Qattara Depression Pipeline", June 2009

External links

  • Annotations. Central University Libraries at Southern Methodist University. Vol. VI, No. 1, Spring 2004.
  • Manlius, M., Menardi-Noguera, A. and Andras Zboray, A. (2003). Decline of the Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia) in Egypt during the 20th century: literature review and recent observations. J. Zool. (London) 259: 403–409.
  • Nora Berrahmouni and Burgess, Neil (2001] Saharan halophytics (PA0905). World Wildlife Fund; online.
  • Saleh, M.A., Helmy, I. and Giegengack (2001) The Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus (Schreber, 1776) in Egypt (Felidae, Acinonychinae). Mammalia 65 (2): 177-194.
  • Mediterranean-Qattara Hydro-electric Proposal

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