GIS Technology Helps Rid Southeast Asia of Landmines and UXO
by Carla Wheeler [ ESRI ]
Southeast Asia remains one of the most heavily mined regions in the world. Cambodia, which has a 2009 deadline for the Ottawa Convention,1 has requested a deadline extension because it will be impossible to meet its clearance obligations by then. The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority is being aided by software from ESRI, which is used to create databases, maps and charts to record the location of mines and unexploded ordnance. This information is used to more effectively locate and demine contaminated areas. As Cambodia’s population increases, it is becoming more critical to clear the land of mines.
Community-based demining workers conduct a sweep for mines in Ta Saen commune, Kamrieng district, Battambang province, Cambodia.
All photos/graphics courtesy of The Cambodian Mine Action Centre
In Laos, they call them "bombies."
It's an innocuous-sounding name for the small cluster bomblets in the ground, silent and harmless, until someone accidentally awakens their deadly force. During the winter of 2007–08 in the province of Savannakhet, Laos, it happened to nine someones. A group of young girls and boys unearthed an American-Vietnam War-era bombie, which often resembles a bright-colored ball or piece of fruit. The explosion and flying metal killed four of the children and injured five.
"The story is terribly sad," says Arleen Engeset of Norwegian People's Aid, a nongovernmental organization that supports demining operations in several countries. "The kids were playing and dug up the cluster bomb. It was just behind their houses."
While not a deminer, Engeset works to rid Southeast Asia of those deadly types of cluster munitions and landmines using a special set of skills: her project management and geographic information system expertise.
As NPA's advisor on information management systems in Southeast Asia, Engeset is helping create and update national databases that will contain a wealth of information about landmines and unexploded ordnance, namely where accidents have occurred, hazardous sites with confirmed mines or UXO, suspected contamination areas and land already cleared. Using GIS technology, this data is tested for and quality assured, mapped and analyzed, and the results form the basis for deciding where, when and if certain areas of land need to be demined.
"GIS is playing a big role because we get an overview of where the most accidents are, where the most people are living, and where the biggest problems [exist]," Engeset says. By considering those factors, priorities can be set as to exactly where to clear mines and UXO in a given year. "The more demining [in those hazardous areas], the fewer accidents, which is good."
Remnants of War
Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people worldwide die or receive injuries from landmines or unexploded ordnance per year, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service. The United Nations estimates that millions of anti-personnel mines lay scattered across more than 70 countries including Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Laos, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam. However, UNMAS describes Cambodia as one of the most heavily contaminated nations in the world, a country littered with landmines and UXO—a legacy of several past conflicts. The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, which coordinates demining operations in the nation, reports more than 60,000 deaths and injuries from landmines and UXO between 1979 and 2004 and 1,675 casualties from 2005 to 2007.
Currently, Engeset is working with In Channa, manager of the CMAA's Database Unit, to conduct quality assurance and analyze thousands of pieces of mine data to get the best possible picture of where the worst problems with mines and UXO exist. They're using GIS software from ESRI to build the database and produce the maps and charts that will help policymakers prioritize the areas that need to be demined.
The maps, authored using ESRI’s ArcView from the ArcGIS Desktop software suite, highlight where the most anti-personnel mine accidents have occurred: Battambang, Banteay Mean Chey, Otdar Mean Chey, Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces in northwestern Cambodia. That was where many anti-personnel mines were laid during a long conflict that involved the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese and other factions in a civil war. Maps also show that cluster-munitions accidents are more prevalent in the eastern provinces bordering Vietnam, where the United States conducted bombing runs during the American-Vietnam War.
Why set priorities on when and where to demine? Engeset says that clearing land ad hoc—without concrete evidence of a hazard—would perhaps mean spending money where it's not needed and leaving dangerous areas uncleared.
"Demining is quite easy in the areas where there are no mines," she says. "If you don't have the prioritizing data, how do you do the work? Where do you start? You will waste time, lives and money." Engeset believes the work being done using GIS is now paying off. "By setting priorities and targeting the heavily mined locations, some of the most dangerous areas have been cleared," she adds.
Casualties from mine and UXO accidents plunged 60 percent during a recent two-year period, falling from 875 deaths and injuries in 2005 to 350 deaths and injuries in 2007. "Time and the elements, such as rain, also are taking a toll on the mines and UXO, causing them to detonate less often and helping lower the casualty rate," Engeset says.
Extension Needed for Mine Clearance
In 1997, Cambodia signed the Ottawa Convention,1 which bans the production and calls for the destruction of anti-personnel landmines. A provision stipulates that signatories must clear their countries of all known landmines within 10 years. Cambodia's deadline is 2009.
Last January, Engeset took a leave from her job at Geodata AS, the ESRI distributor in Norway, to join Norwegian People’s Aid and go to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to serve as a technical advisor to the CMAA's national database project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is helping the CMAA consolidate and improve the quality and usability of the data. The recent focus on the database project was related to the extension request to that provision in the Ottawa Convention. Engeset and Channa, along with his team, collected and conducted quality assurance on the data, which they then analyzed to answer two major questions: What areas are left that definitely need to be demined? And how long might that work take? The results of the analysis, in the form of maps and statistics, were part of the request to ask for additional time to complete clearing the mines.
"We [prepared] an extension request asking for 10 more years to do this work," Engeset explains. "There are a lot of areas where we know we still have landmines." The deadline to prepare and conduct quality assurance on the data was August 2008; then the analysis work, using ArcView, began.
This is a complex project for many reasons. Engeset and the CMAA work closely with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, which conducts about half the demining operations in the country (the two other major organizations are Mines Advisory Group and The HALO Trust). For the extension request, the CMAA must make sure that the data (e.g., shapefiles that show the location of hazardous mined areas) from Technical Surveys conducted by CMAC and entered into CMAC's five provincial databases matches up with the information in the CMAA's database. "MAG and HALO also provide data to CMAA using ESRI's ArcGIS software," Engeset says.
Besides the results of technical surveys, the CMAA's database also contains the results of the National Level One Survey conducted in 2001 and 2002 in 13,908 villages in Cambodia, a country 181,040 square kilometers (69,900 square miles) in size. During the survey, information was collected about accidents and suspected locations of landmines and UXO based on interviews with villagers.
According to UNMAS:
- 6,422 villages were identified as contaminated with landmines or UXO to some extent. "About 5.1 million people in or around those villages are considered at risk," says Engeset.
- 7,486 villages were identified as uncontaminated.
- 20 percent of all villages in the country are contaminated to the extent of having an adverse socioeconomic impact on the community.
L1 Survey Map: The red areas on this map indicate the findings from the National Level One Survey in Cambodia, where people reported the existence of landmines or UXO.
Equipped with the results of the National Level One Survey, CMAC is returning to the 6,422 contaminated villages to conduct Technical Surveys and map the exact locations of the hazards. CMAC operators use explosives-sniffing dogs and handheld mine-detection equipment to locate the mines. "If they find mines, they use GPS to map the border of the areas," Engeset says. That information is stored as polygons with ArcGIS Desktop and later converted into shapefiles that, along with other data, can be shared and analyzed.
"Right now, we are working very hard with the operators to be sure we have the same information that they have stored in their databases," Engeset says. "As soon as we have all the data stored in one place, it will be easier to analyze." The analysis began in the fall of 2008 and continues.
Resolve for Solving a Problem
"As Cambodia's population increases, people are on the move looking for land to open up to farming and industry, making mine clearance all the more pressing," Engeset says. Some people continue to live in the middle of minefields and go out into the fields daily, risking their lives. She's pleased to help make their futures safer.
A Cambodian woman and her father each lost a foot in a landmine explosion that occurred in a rice paddy.
"I am not an expert on mines, but I do know about information systems," Engeset says. "This [landmine] problem is huge in Asia, and when you meet the victims, it affects you." She is constantly amazed by the tenacity of the people who continue to work in dangerous conditions. Engeset still remembers a Thai farmer who survived two landmine explosions.
Though his right foot was blown apart when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine, the farmer refused to let the accident prevent him from pursuing his livelihood and feeding his family. Fitted with an artificial limb, he returned to work in the rice fields where he had tripped the mine.
The man duly noted his accident during a Level One Landmine/UXO Survey that Engeset worked on during an NPA project in Thailand. The story would have ended there, except that Engeset and her colleagues noted a discrepancy in his report. The man had filed two forms listing two locations in the rice paddy for where the accident occurred. Thinking he had made an error, they sought out the farmer and were shocked to learn he had stepped on two mines at two different times.
The farmer, good humor intact, counted himself fortunate because he was struck in the same foot twice. Recalls Engeset, "He said, 'Actually, I was quite lucky. The second time, I had my artificial leg on, so that was okay.' ''
Carla Wheeler is a marketing writer at ESRI in Redlands, California, where she writes about the use of geospatial technology in several areas, including the defense and intelligence industry. In addition, she edits ArcWatch, ESRI’s online monthly magazine for GIS news. A former journalist, Wheeler also has reported on a wide variety of topics including social issues, religion, crime and foreign films.
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, commonly known as the Ottawa Convention. http://www.icbl.org/treaty/text/english. Accessed 15 September 2008.
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