Survey Shows Mines’ Affect On Society

The land mines and unexploded munitions that litter Cambodia kill or maim hundreds every year—but even when they don’t take lives, they affect lives.

They render land unusable, roads inaccessible, houses or whole towns off-limits. Projects from road construction to tourism have to wait until mines are painstakingly cleared from an area.

The first step to ridding a country of land mines is figuring out where they are, and now, thanks to workers who have combed the country, that step is finished.

The Cambodia National Level 1 Survey Project, a two-year, $2 million Canadian-funded effort, is to be presented in its final form today. The most ambitious and comprehensive land mine mapping project in the world to date, it looks to be an invaluable boon to local and national government, NGOs and re­searchers worldwide.

To conduct the survey, the private Canadian survey company GeoSpatial International Inc went to 13,908 of Cambodia’s 13,910 known villages and interviewed locals about how land mines and unexploded ordnance affect their lives.

The survey exists as a computer program that can, with the click of a mouse, overlay different sets of data—searching for minefields only, for example, or cluster bombs and mines, or only those UXOs that affect villagers.

The Cambodian Mine Action Center can use the maps to target its demining efforts. NGOs can use them to make sure they can dig a well or build a school in a given area. Road-building projects can use them to see where it’s safe to pave. Commune chiefs can use them in drafting development plans.

“There’s a limited amount we can know” from interviewing villagers, survey Project Manager Valerie Warmington said. Many mines and UXOs may be in dense jungle, in unpopulated areas, or underground. “But the people in these areas have lived with the landmines for years. If they’re using the land, they know where the mines are.”

And after all, the mines and UXOs that affect lives are the ones that matter most in the effort to make Cambodia safe. The survey includes precise information on how, exactly, landmines are influencing the way Cambodians live.

The field workers—84 deminers borrowed from the Cambodian Mine Action Center and trained to do survey work—interviewed as many people as necessary in a given village to get a complete picture of the mine/UXO problem there, usually spending one to one and one-half days in each place.

“They gather socioeconomic data—can the kids play? can you go to the market?—to find out the impact of mines on people’s lives,” Warmington said.

In Banteay Meanchey province, for example, the survey found that minefields or UXO restricted access to 2,042 homes and made pasture land inaccessible to 9,200 farms.

“These communities are amazing in the ways they’ve learned to live with [landmines and UXO], but it definitely impacts their lives,” Warmington said. “Now we can look at the data and say, These communities haven’t been able to cope; they’re the ones most in need of assistance.”

The survey found a staggering 46 percent of all Cambodian villages—6,367 of them—are affected by mines, UXOs or both. With mines, cluster bombs, mortars, grenades and everything else, Cambodia is practically blanketed with explosions waiting to go off.

That makes this survey stand out from the others that have been done in Yemen, Chad, Thailand and Mozambique.

“In some of those other [countries] the number of villages was much smaller, or whole areas of the country could be eliminated because there was never a conflict there,” Warmington said. On the survey map of Thailand, for example, colored dots representing mines or UXO encrust the borders, but the country’s interior is blank.

Compared to the others, “this is a very ambitious survey,” Warmington said. “In Cambodia, the whole country is contaminated, from the heavily mined areas of the northwest to the northeast, which was heavily cluster-bombed by the US.”

The survey should draw attention to these cluster bombs. Vestiges of the US bombing campaign during the war in Vietnam, they now act as a booby trap for the sparsely populated areas east of the Mekong River. According to US military data, 155,000 bombs were dropped on eastern Cambodia.

A cluster bomb consists of hundreds of tennis ball-sized “bomblets” which, dropped from the air, scatter and explode on impact. But on average, 10 to 20 percent of the bomblets don’t explode, and when they drop on soft land or jungle the proportion may be 30 percent.

The unexploded bomblets from a single bomb may cover an area the size of a football field. Unlike landmines, they’re not just activated by being stepped on. Any motion—plowing, picking up, kicking—will set them off.

Most of the cluster-bombed areas don’t yet have a socioeconomic impact because so few people now inhabit northeast Cambodia. But as the country’s population grows, those areas may be settled, and cluster bombs will become a major problem.

“At the end of the day, this [survey] will be of amazing utility to Cambodia,” Warmington said. “It will assist greatly in reconstruction and socioeconomic development.”

Already, more than 30 agencies—from Action Against Hunger to a major Asian Development Bank-funded road project—have consulted the survey’s preliminary findings to help them plan their initiatives.

Now the completed survey must be evaluated and certified by the UN Mine Action Service in Geneva. The committee that reviews landmine surveys will meet at the end of this month, and approval seems likely.

Once that happens, all the survey data will be available to anyone in the world on the Internet.

 

Related Stories

Latest News