20 August 2010

Recent weather incidents highlight the danger caused by displaced antipersonnel mines

In early August 2010, North Korean landmines drifted along streams between North and South Korea due to heavy rain-fall, causing the death of one man and injuring another after they picked up a mine on their way back from fishing. In mid-August, in Pakistan in the region of DI Khan devastated by floods, dislodged mines and unexploded ordnance injured five civilians in three separate incidents, according to ICBL member Sustainable Peace and Development Organization.

"Some argue that fencing and marking mined areas is generally sufficient to protect civilian lives, but fencing and marking are at best only temporary measures. These recent tragic incidents show once again that the only real way to fully ensure safety is by completing clearance of all mined areas as soon as possible, no matter how remote," explains Sylvie Brigot, Executive Director of the ICBL. "Landmines can and do move as weather conditions change, for example due to heavy rain, hurricanes or earthquakes. Areas previously considered clear and safe can become mine-contaminated, threatening displaced or returning populations."

Over the last decade several natural disasters have lead to landmines being displaced and threatening civilian lives. In November 1998, when Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America, the consequent floods in Nicaragua unearthed and scattered landmines.* Severe flooding in Mozambique in 2000 and 2001 washed away minefield marking. In Jordan, mines have been known to drift due to sporadic floods, along streams at the borders. The 2005 earthquake in Pakistan triggered landslides near the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir region, raising major concerns over the potential threat posed by shifting mines.

After natural disasters, as emergency services are strained and populations have to deal with deaths, diseases and lack of food and shelter, they also face the additional hardship of trying to avoid mines and providing care for mine victims. For clearance teams, tracking the location of displaced mines also becomes a formidable challenge: operational plans and data on known mined areas becomes obsolete, setting back clearance plans several months, if not longer as new surveys will be necessary.

In such situations, non-governmental organizations, mine action operators and sometimes governments conduct risk education sessions to teach local populations how to avoid the danger posed by victim-activated weapons. This constitutes an essential emergency step, but it is surely not a guarantee that all casualties will be avoided.

Note* Nicaragua celebrated completion of its mine clearance activities in June 2010, and Central America thus became the world's first mine-free region.