Mine and unexploded ordnance casualties could rise in 2010 for the first time in more than five years, officials said yesterday.
“We think by the end of this year it will increase a little bit,” said Chhiv Lim, project manager at the Cambodian Mine Victim Information System, a database maintained by the Cambodian Red Cross with Handicap International Belgium.
According to government data, such an increase has not happened since 2004, when the number of people killed or injured by mines and UXO jumped from 772 to 898.
By the end of 2009, that number had dropped to 244. But according to the government’s latest figures, by September mines and UXO had already killed or injured 223 people this year, 11.5 percent more than this time last year.
“We worry [casualties] may be higher than last year,” said Heng Ratana, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center, who said he had “no clear indication” as to what had caused the increase in casualties.
However, Mr Ratana noted that most accidents were not occurring on new farmland but that land was being farmed in new ways. While handheld tools might not trigger an old mine, “if you try to use a tractor…that will be a different story,” he said.
He also said this year’s increase came with a relatively small jump in individual incidents but that the explosions had increasingly involved more powerful anti-tank mines, which killed greater numbers on average. Mr Ratana said he was worried the trend could continue into 2011.
Chan Rotha, deputy secretary-general and the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, also attributed the apparently rising casualty rate to increasing mechanized farming and road building. Unlike Mr Ratana, however, he sounded confident that persistent clearing and improved mapping of contaminated areas would soon bring numbers down again.
“If clearing continues at the same rate as this year, I think maybe [there will be] less accidents,” he said. A 2009 government report, however, said that donor fatigue would make maintaining that rate “very challenging.”
Jeroen Stol, country director at Handicap International Belgium, said he has also sensed a touch of complacency among donors.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said of the rising casualty figures. “What we see is that people become a little more comfortable than they should be when they see a downward trend.
“This shows we should increase our efforts even more than we have,” he said.
Mr Stol and others say they have seen donor aid for both clearance and victim assistance slowly dry up over the years.
“If we have enough workers and financial support, we could demine the entire region,” said CMAC’s Cheng Rady, who overseas clearance efforts in five eastern provinces. Despite a recent push in the region, however, he said personnel and budget limits still hamper their efforts.