The recent flooding in Bosnia has revealed the need for a reinvigorated de-mining effort in the region.
Over the last few days, I have been getting many questions from journalists and friends alike about the reports of the Bosnian floods possibly dislodging landmines.
I think this surprises people, perhaps because their conception of a minefield comes from computer game Minesweeper, in which a mine stays put until someone clears it. However, landmines are laid within a dynamic ecosystem. If they are buried, they can shift positions as soil freezes and unfreezes with the seasons. Soil erosion may expose a mine. Floods like those that have recently hit the Balkans can dislodge mines and wash them into new places.
The mine problem in Bosnia dates back to the war in the early 1990s. While many mined areas have been cleared since then, there are still an estimated 1,219km2 of land suspected to contaminated by mines, affecting 1,417 communities and 540,000 people. There have been six landmine accidents this year, killing four people and injuring eight.
In 2012, the Bosnian government said there were approximately 120,000 landmines still left in the ground; in 2013, 1,800 were removed. But estimating the number of mines in a minefield is notoriously difficult – like guessing the number of stones in a sealed jar. Mines are rarely deployed in regular patterns and records are poorly kept or lost.
One never really knows the exact outlines of a minefield, but through what de-miners call “general and technical survey,” we can narrow down the “suspected hazard area.” The Mine Ban Treaty and international standards governing mine clearance require that mine-affected countries like Bosnia mark contaminated areas near human habitation with fences and signs. Unfortunately, minefields are not static, and flooding has the potential to move mines into areas previously considered safe by residents and authorities.
If you are interested specifically in how the flooding is affecting the mine situation in Bosnia, please contact the humanitarian de-mining professionals working on the ground. Look, for example, at the website of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC), which has been posting updates.
It is worth noting, however, that mine clearance is not just a technical issue. The fear that the boundaries of Bosnia’s minefields might be shifting wouldn’t make sense if there weren’t mines there in the first place. The persistent existence of those mines is the result of slow progress in de-mining.
When it joined the Mine Ban Treaty in 1999, Bosnia undertook a legal obligation to finish clearing all mined areas as soon as possible, and no later than 2009. Taking advantage of the possibility to ask for a deadline extension, in 2008, Bosnia received another 10 years, thereby committing to clear all mines from its territory by 2019. But there is wide agreement among de-mining professionals and officials in Bosnia that they will not meet that deadline.
Why not? There is an underlying political lethargy around the mine problem in Bosnia. The parliament has not been able to pass a new de-mining law and has consistently underfunded mine clearance – contributing less than a third of its planned budget for 2013 alone. The government agency responsible for overseeing de-mining has also been at the centre of an alleged political scandal. Interest from foreign donors, including other governments, is also rapidly waning. International funding is also often in the form of small, short-term projects, preventing long-term planning and best use of resources.
With the money that has come in, Bosnia has prioritized the release of land through survey – mainly of land that had no credible evidence of contamination in the first place. In doing so, they have delayed clearing those areas known to contain anti-personnel mines and therefore with a much higher impact on community safety. For example, in 2013, Bosnia released a tiny 1.9km2 of land through clearance – i.e., finding and destroying mines – as opposed to 33km2² through non-technical survey – i.e., a process that does not even involve entering any mined areas. The total area released through clearance, technical and non-technical survey in 2013 – 44.3km2² was less than a third of the amount planned.
The dangers posed by the floods have revealed the weaknesses in Bosnian de-mining system – and the international community’s support for it. Besides responding to the immediate emergency, Bosnian authorities need to restore public confidence in the mine clearance effort by passing the new de-mining law and funding their own strategy adequately, and focusing resources on clearing known mined areas, starting with those having the highest impact on communities. Foreign donors also need to step up with a reinvigorated effort to complete clearance by 2019. ■