One of Iraq’s largest public safety concerns and a major impediment to its social and economic development lies in the serious problem of landmines and explosive remnants that are scattered in numerous locations around the country.
This is a major challenge for Iraq to address as it continues on the path toward its full reconstruction.
Vast stretches of potentially highly productive agricultural land cannot be cultivated because of the potentially lethal hazards presented by explosive materials that still lie undetected. Hundreds of Iraqi people continue to suffer injuries and dozens have been killed.
Reliable sources of information cataloguing the true scale of the problem remain hard to come by, but it has been estimated by the Iraqi government that at least 20 million anti-personnel landmines were planted on Iraqi soil in the past, mainly on its borders and around the oil fields in the south of the country.
A new report jointly released on 1 July by UNICEF and UNDP titled “Overview of Landmines and Explosive Remnants in Iraq” tries to establish the extent of the problem and highlight what needs to be done. The compilers of the report say that they have gathered the best data currently available on this critical problem.
The report recommends that Iraq in cooperation with its international partners give greater attention to eradicating the problem, although it recognises that this is a daunting task given the problem’s likely scale.
However, the two organisations believe that there is a new impetus to dealing with the issue within the context of the recent fall in oil prices and general improvement in the security situation inside the country. Iraq now wants to step up the exploration of its natural resources and diversify its economic activities.
Decaying landmines and the remnants of unexploded mortar and cluster bombs all urgently need to be cleared before productive use can be made of large areas of contaminated agricultural lands, numerous tracks on oil and gas fields as well as infrastructure and public facilities.
Children are particularly affected by landmines, the report says. This is because children in Iraq have many domestic duties such as herding sheep, collecting water and firewood, harvesting fruit and crops, all tasks which put them in danger and make them prone to accidents leading to injuries and deaths. The casualties are highly visible in the number of people seen with amputated limbs, burns and other physical disfigurements.
Another section of the population at risk are the farmers wanting to return to their land and homes, as well as other individuals who may stray unwittingly onto contaminated land or people seeking to remove scrap metals from land only to find that this is explosive.
A systematic programme of “mine risk education” to raise awareness of the dangers is one solution proposed by the report. It says that over 90 percent of the persons surveyed believe that such education would help them stay safe from injuries and death caused by unexploded ordnance and landmines.
A separate survey conducted in the four central governorates of Anbar, Salah Al-Din, Baghdad and Babylon revealed that explosive remnants of war are the main type of contamination, but the level of public awareness of the hazards posed remains exceptionally low.
UNICEF and UNDP propose an economic support programme to help rural communities most affected by contaminated land by fostering alternative productive activities in those areas.
The economic impact of the landmines and explosive debris is clearly considerable. Not only does it impede the delivery of essential services and humanitarian assistance, it obstructs development projects and has a negative impact on the country’s environment. It denies people access to agricultural land, prevents the return of the internally displaced and deprives entire communities of their income.
Furthermore, it prevents to use of roads, water resources and residential areas.
All these accumulated problems simply add the obstacles to the country’s reconstruction and delay the time when its people can return to something resembling normal daily living conditions.
The lingering problem of contaminated land particularly impedes the country’s development plans with regards to the agricultural and tourism sectors.
A survey in the southern governorates of Basra, Missan, Thi-Qar and Muthana found that 88 percent of communities affected said that access was blocked to areas that could be used for irrigated crops, while 81 percent felt that access was blocked to areas that could be used as pasture. The situation was similar in other regions too.
Other evidence of the damage inflicted by continued land contamination includes the fact that 26kn of the Basra rail network remains contaminated by mines and unexploded ordinance, making it unsafe for use. To be able to reopen the track, 100 metres of land needs to be cleared on either side over the affected territory, which is a major undertaking.
Another example is a water treatment plant project in Basra that was halted due to landmines, leaving 21km2 of land needing to be cleared. When this work has been carried out, the Ministry of Water Resources will be able to construct the plant and local people will be allowed to return to their farms.
A similar situation exists at the fishing port of Fao, where unexploded ordnance is preventing the development of a potentially lucrative fisheries sector. Local communities in Iraq like the poor fishermen of Basra urgently want to engage in productive activities to improve their incomes and reduce the poverty levels which have for too long afflicted them. Many thousands of communities are affected by the threats posed by landmines and explosive debris and some key natural resources are going unused when they are desperately needed for the country’s national revival.
Unfortunately, as the report points out, these issues cannot be resolved in just a few years, but might take decades to sort out, which is all the more reason for urgent and coordinated action to be taken.
While the prime responsibility lies with the Iraqi government, the country’s international partners and the donor community have an important role to play, the report argues.
First of all a thorough assessment needs to be carried out to establish exactly those areas most affected. The needs of the victims must also be established through nothing less than a comprehensive national government approach.
The report suggests that legislation and institutions need to be put in place, including a regulatory framework with strong monitoring capacity, in order for the problem to be dealt with in a strategic and structured way.
It is clear that the lingering hazards presented by land mines and explosive remnants are considerable. As well as the tragic human costs in the loss of life and the permanent maiming of innocent civilians on a daily basis, the economic impact is immense. The report makes the case for action very effectively and as such it is an important contribution towards the long awaited reconstruction of Iraq. Global Arab Network
The full report can be obtained at:undp .org/ publications
A version of this article will appear in a future issue of Arab-British Business, the fortnightly bulletin of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce.