As governments and businesses rushed to close down or freeze activities to contain the pandemic and focused resources on frontline services, the essential work of demining has continued in Cambodia. The country remains one of the most mine affected in the world, with an estimated 4 to 6 million remnants posing a continued threat to its population.
Both COVID-19 management and mine clearance are primarily about saving lives. With early action from the Royal Government of Cambodia and low levels of infection in the Southeast Asia region, Cambodia has so far escaped community transmission of COVID-19 and has a zero-mortality rate to date. The same is not true for death and injury from mines. There have been 39 casualties from mines and explosive remnants of war in Cambodia since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. As we consider priority areas of work during the pandemic, we cannot afford to cut back on this essential lifesaving humanitarian work – for more than one reason.
Beyond its direct ability to save lives, mine clearance is critical to agricultural production in Cambodia. Agriculture is one of the few sectors doing well despite the pandemic. According to the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Veng Sakhon, exports of milled rice have significantly increased this year, up 38% in the first seven months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This highlights the urgent need to decontaminate mine-affected fields and give them back to communities for productive use.
Creating livelihood opportunities is especially important with the influx of migrant workers returning to Cambodia from Thailand due to COVID-19. A survey undertaken of 320 migrant workers in mine-affected areas of the country revealed that over half have not yet found employment. Without any timeline in sight as to how long they will stay in their home country, there is a pressing need to ensure they have productive, mine-free land to work on.
Since the start of the pandemic, mine clearance operators in Cambodia have continued to operate at full capacity to deliver these results. They have implemented new measures to comply with health and hygiene guidelines set out by the Royal Government of Cambodia and the World Health Organization. Yet these changes to protocol have not come without challenges. Health and sanitary equipment need to be purchased, field training and meetings are difficult to hold while adhering to social distancing guidelines, and travel between minefields has become increasingly challenging.
Supporting mine clearance operators to make these required shifts and continue to deliver lifesaving work is critical to the efforts of the Clearing for Results project supported by the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, UNDP Cambodia, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Korea International Cooperation Agency, and New Zealand. Operating since 2006, this is the first pandemic the project has worked under. While it presents new challenges, it also brings important opportunities for mine clearance work to save lives across the country and to build resiliency for Cambodia’s steps beyond recovery.