Officials say shortage of funds could slow deminers’ progress
WHEN an anti-tank mine exploded along a bumpy dirt road in Pailin province in early May, it marked the start of what would be the worst month for land-mine casualties recorded in Cambodia in nearly three years, according to statistics released Monday.
The explosion, which killed five people and injured nine others, was a reminder of the uphill battle Cambodia still faces in reducing land-mine casualties, and underscored why authorities say they have been forced to re-evaluate the Kingdom’s timeline to end accidents.
It happened in Pailin’s Stung Treng commune, where there have now been more casualties from land mines recorded than any other commune in the country over the last two years, according to government statistics.
Ry Dara, the commune’s police chief, said a loaded van heading to nearby cassava fields was driving through the rain when it hit a mine lying just beneath the road’s surface.
Three people were killed instantly, and another two people died in hospital, he said.
“Villagers felt shocked, because they did not know the area had mines,” he said.
Before May, there had been only one land mine casualty recorded in Pailin province for the entire year. By the end of the month, the Cambodian Mine/Explosive Remnants of War Victim Information System, which tracks data on land mine casualties, had recorded 50 casualties nationwide – the highest monthly total reported since August 2007.
Chhiv Lim, the CMVIS project manager, said spikes in casualties are not uncommon, and that they tend to occur, for example, around March and April, when land is being cleared in preparation for the upcoming wet season.
But he added that the May report was worrying, in part because it brought the number of casualties recorded this year to 134, five higher than the number of casualties recorded in the first five months of last year. There were 244 casualties in all of 2009, meaning that Cambodia could potentially see an increase in land-mine casualties in 2010 for the first time in six years.
“We’re very concerned about this. We need to study more about why this happened,” Chhiv Lim said.
MDG target to change
Over the longer term, Cambodia has managed to significantly reduce land-mine casualties, from 1,691 in 1993 to 244 last year.
But authorities have acknowledged that its initial obligation to clear all contaminated areas in the Kingdom by 2009 – part of its commitment under the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use of land mines – may have been unrealistic.
Cambodia was granted a 10-year extension on that goal during a gathering of parties to the treaty held in Cartagena, Colombia, in December.
Now, authorities are also reconsidering Cambodia’s Millennium Development Goal pertaining to the eradication of land mines.
The Kingdom’s target to eliminate land mine casualties and clear all contaminated areas by 2012 will now be “impossible” to reach in such a short period of time, Leng Sochea, deputy secretary general of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), said Monday.
“Last week, we had a discussion … to refocus our goal,” he said. “The old goal was a bit too ambitious to achieve.”
A more realistic objective, he said, would be to reduce land mine casualties by the rate at which they have dropped since 2005 – roughly 10 percent a year.
“Through the experiences of the last two years, we have seen that this figure may be more realistic,” Leng Sochea said.
Officials have warned, however, that fluctuations in international funding could have an impact on whether Cambodia will meet any new targets on reducing land mine casualties.
Leng Sochea said the government would require roughly US$330 million for its new 10-year plan. But money has been short as of late.
For the last three years, Cambodia has received $29-30 million each year for mine-clearance programmes.
“But this year, the figure is down,” Leng Sochea said. “Up until now, we have secured around $23 million only.”
He attributed the drop to global factors such as economic conditions in donor countries.
“If the development partners keep their promises and give funds, maybe we can clear the land and meet our obligations. We need the development partners to be responsible,” he said.
International groups that work on mine issues in the Kingdom have also been hit by funding cuts.
Cameron Imber, programme manager for mine-clearance charity The Halo Trust, said his organisation’s budget has dropped from $7 million to $4 million in two years.
If the funding continues to decline next year, the organisation is facing the possibility of laying off 40 percent of its 1,100-member staff – the majority of whom work in the mine fields on a daily basis, he said.
“We’ve had to scrimp and save, but we won’t be able to do it anymore,” Imber said.
He attributes the shrinking funds to “donor fatigue”.
In Afghanistan, where he worked for more than four years before coming to Cambodia, funding was never an issue.
“It was the focus of global attention. Here, the attention is dropping off slightly,” he said.
“It is a problem. At the end of the day, the more de-miners out there, the more mines will be cleared.”