Despite two decades of landmine clearance programs, Cambodia remains one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world, though the number of people falling victim to landmines continues to drop each year.
Children play near a sign warning of landmines in Cambodia
Recent figures released by the Cambodian authorities show that 243 people were killed or injured by landmines and leftover explosives last year.
That represents a 10 percent drop from 2008, which was itself down on the number of casualties in 2007.
In fact the trend since the country’s civil war ended in the late 1990s has been fewer victims every year.
Chhiv Lim, who heads the organisation that compiles the annual statistics, is pleased with the continued annual reduction in casualties.
"This is good news for Cambodia", he says. "The reason the number of casualties has dropped is that Cambodia has planned demining well. And Cambodians also understand the dangers well."
A Cambodian soldier with both legs amputated after losing them in a mine blast
Demining and education of the dangers of mines are key, but he says that legislation outlawing the home storage unexploded ordnance, or UXO, has also helped.
Millions of mines awaiting clearance
But millions of landmines still lie in Cambodia’s soil. Jamie Franklin heads the Mines Advisory Group, or MAG, a British NGO that has been demining in Cambodia for more than a decade.
Last year MAG spent 3 million US dollars funding 15 demining teams, comprising 15 people each. The total area of land cleared? Just three square kilometres.
That is not much – so why does it take so long?
Firstly, he says, most mined land is overgrown with vegetation, and the demining team has to cut that back by hand. "Then metal in the ground has to be detected using a metal detector – and every single metal reading manually excavated. In an area that’s been heavily fought over or where there has been a military camp so there’s lot of metal fragmentation, it can mean very slow progress."
Demining can be very slow
Franklin says that one demining team could find up to 40,000 metal fragments in their clearance area in a month.
"Each of those has to be manually excavated", he explains, "which can take up to 20 minutes per metal reading, and they may only find 50 mines amongst all of that, but each of those metal readings has to be investigated."
In short, this slow, painstaking work is vital, especially since Cambodia is a predominantly agricultural country where 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas.
Additional funds are essential to meet goals
So what lies ahead for demining in Cambodia? Under the terms of the international landmine treaty, which outlaws landmine use and sets targets to clear mined land, Cambodia was recently granted a ten-year extension to rid itself of mines.
But the government says more than 600 square kilometres are still mined, and MAG’s Franklin says worldwide funding for demining is decreasing as donors switch funding to other areas.
Experts worry Cambodia’s decreasing casualty rate could rise again. Chhiv Lim says the only solution is for donors to maintain or even increase funding levels to ensure Cambodia has a chance to become mine-free within ten years.
Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein