Extensive coal deposits, especially the high quality coking coal required in steel manufacturing and critical to the Ruhr's rise as an industrial center, underlie the region in basins that are near the surface along the Ruhr River (the location of the oldest mines and steel plants), and at greater depths to the north along the Lippe River (where most of the modern mines are found). Many coal deposits in this region have been exhausted. Raw materials are imported into the region by way of the Rhine, the Ruhr (navigable below Witten), the Rhine-Herne Canal, the Dortmund-Ems Canal, and a dense network of rail and road connections. The Ruhr Planning Authority (est. 1921) protects designated farmlands and green areas from encroachment by the cities and enforces pollution legislation.
The development of the Ruhr district began in the 19th cent. when the Krupp and Thyssen concerns (now merged) built large integrated coal and steel empires. The Ruhr was occupied (1923) by French and Belgian forces during the dispute over reparations. The troops evacuated (1925), but the occupation greatly embittered German nationalist feeling. Some of the chief Ruhr industrialists helped Hitler to power in 1933. The Ruhr, which was vital in the production of armaments for the German military, was a major bombing target for Allied forces during World War II. About three fourths of the region was destroyed; nearly a third of the area's coal mines were forced to close down.
The International Authority for the Ruhr was set up in 1949 with responsibility for development of the region. Control passed to the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and to West Germany in 1954. In the creation of the new state of North Rhine–Westphalia in 1946, the provincial border between Westphalia and the Rhineland was removed, improving the integration of operations in the region. Coal production suffered from competition from other fuels, and in the 1980s the coal and steel industries that had made the region an industrial center declined, leading to serious unemployment. Although the region remains a important manufacturing center, more than three fifths of the working population has been employed in the service sector since the 1990s.
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