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Extreme geographical and climactic challenges to demining

//Att. Subscribers, this report is part of a comprehensive set of features, background reports, interviews and other resources on landmine-related issues titled 'IRIN Web Special on Humanitarian Mine Action, published ahead of the 2004 Nairobi Summit on a Mine Free World.'//

Chad is a vast, landlocked and arid central African country which harbours a largely nomadic population of 8.6 million on a territory twice the size of France.

It is also a desperately poor place, following three decades of civil and international wars that caused an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 deaths. It ranks as the 167th most-developed nation, according to the UN’s 2004 Human Development Index.

Chad is today relatively stable, since president Idriss Déby and his party, the Mouvement patriotique du salut (MPS), seized power in 1990. Despite relative peace, it is still struggling with one of the worst mine situations on the African continent.

The Survey Action Center (SAC) estimates in its 2001 Landmine Impact Survey, that 284,435 Chadians live under the constant threat of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). The affected areas cover 1,081 sq km of land, a total area larger than the entire city of New York.

Pollution by mines and UXOs first appeared in Chad in 1960. From 1977 to 1983, various Chadian factions fought and planted mines across the country. Most were planted during the second Libyan occupation of northern Chad, from 1984 to 1987. They were part of a deliberate campaign of terror aimed at forcing Chadian populations to flee northern areas.

Subsequent conflicts between the Chadian armed forces and various opposition groups (such as the MPS and formerly, the Mouvement pour la Démocratie et le Développement [MDD]), led to further ordnance usage.

Tackling the mine problem in such a wide and scarcely populated country presents a unique set of challenges. The immensity of the territory leaves many parts of the country without any trace of infrastructure, further impeding demining efforts.

Michel Destemberg is chief technical adviser for the UN Development Programme for demining in Chad. He explained the specific constraints of demining such a vast area to IRIN.

“We have to aggregate demining operations around airstrips because if staff get injured, we must be able to fly them out to a hospital in less than six hours, which means reaching the capital, Ndjamena, sometimes from a distance of 1000 km,” Destemberg said.

The geographic distribution of the inhabitants in the national territory is extremely wide.

Of Chad’s 1.28 million square km, about 3 percent is arable land. Nomadic herding prevails as a major source of livelihood with 11.5 million counted head of livestock. The frequent movements that are needed to find proper pasture and water for the cattle in the northern Sahelian areas, exposes the Chadian pastoralists to constant mine and UXO accidents, as the northern region is the most mine-polluted in the country.

Although nomadic communities develop an essential group memory, which allows them to avoid some mine-polluted zones, the risk of accidents increases when they leave familiar areas in search of pastures.

According to the SAC report, over one fifth of mine casualties were reported by victims who were engaged in herding at the time of the incident. When asked about the nature of the threat, more than half of Chad’s communities are concerned by this continuous threat.

As Destemberg noted, the effort of raising awareness about the dangers of mines is often helped by ‘bush-telegraph’ and social structures of the pastoralists themselves.

“They have representatives and elders who spread the awareness messages we disseminate in traditional stopovers such as oases, or towns with schools,” he said.

The Chadian climate and geography make demining operations a difficult task. Large parts of the country, mainly around lake Chad and in the north, are covered in moving sand dunes. This causes mine-contaminated areas to be regularly covered or uncovered by shifting sands, making mine location extremely difficult and quickly outdated.

A significant proportion of Chad’s scarce water resources come from wadis, intermittent streams that flow during the occasional rains. Another problem special to Chad is when mines and UXOs are displaced by irregular flash floods, quietly shifting the menace to uncharted locations.

“We cordon off mined areas with barbed wire, but after rains, we have sometimes found mines 100 meters beyond the perimeter,” said Destemberg.

Generally, the clay soils in Chad make the surfaces turn to sloppy mud in the wet season, which hardens to a rock-like surface in the sun of the dry season. Both extremes make demining difficult and extremely slow.

The climate also works to make mine clearance difficult. Temperatures often reach 50 degrees (Celsius) by mid-day, making for a short workday and forcing demining teams to rise long before dawn. Sand storms accompanying deafening winds also hinder demining efforts.

“Sand winds can be so deafening as they cover the sound signals of our detecting devices,” Destemberg told IRIN.

UXOs are found in dangerous quantities in several of the firing ranges the Chadian army has used for training over the years. According to the 2001 Landmine Impact Survey, these sites “can be viewed as active battlefield areas, in which the level of contamination is continually replenished”.

The vastness and geographical features of the Chadian landscape are not only an impediment to proper demining efforts, but are also a threat to the provision of care to mine victims.

Chadian medical infrastructure is basic and is currently unable to offer any ordinance victim physical rehabilitation or vocational therapy. Sometimes, if the accident happens far away from the few existing large towns, even basic first aid to a victim can be delayed by days.

A mine action expert working for the initial studies of the Survey Action Centre in Chad told IRIN ”not surprisingly, as in other sparsely-populated countries such as Afghanistan - where infrastructure is also weak - many victims die of blood loss before help can reach them”.

Communities in Chad were also affected by the fact that many mines have been laid around water sources. The systematic mining of water resources and their areas, mainly in the northern part of the country, seriously affected water access for many. About half of the Chadian communities surveyed by the SAC in the north reported they had to permanently leave their normal living areas because different water supplies had become too dangerous to visit due to landmines.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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