Andy Smith
MIne-action specialist

Reducing areas recorded as hazardous


All Mine Action decisions in a particular country or district should be "context based". It is not always possible for the decision making process to be made entirely by national staff, but it should always be possible to prioritise decisions in a way that is approved by nationals as being appropriate in their country. Because cultural norms about what is acceptable vary geographically and over time, any system will vary from country to country and will require revision as time passes. Because there is no global method of reducing areas recorded as hazardous, this paper attempts to give generic guidelines, explained with a few examples.

The art of survey

The "art" of survey is rarely discussed openly. This is because it is one aspect of demining that many people believe is a mysterious "black art" which relies so heavily on experience that it cannot be taught. This is not true. Good surveyors do tend to have wide experience, and the basis of their decisions does often appear to have as much to do with subjective "gut-feeling" as any conscious rational decision-making process. But there are methods in play even when surveyors are unwilling to explain how they have made a decision. In my experience this is often because they cannot express the process clearly and are afraid that they will lay themselves open to criticism if their decisions are not well justified - or if a decision turns out to have been inappropriate. Some survey decisions will be wrong, if only because new information is collected that changes the evidence on which the original decision was based. As long as the survey system makes provision to update and change past decisions, making an incorrect decision is better than making no decision at all.

When the Survey Action Centre was established to carry out "impact surveys" I spoke out against their apparent neglect of those survey skills that could be taught. I argued that they should use existing demining surveyors to make impact surveys, so combining existing knowledge with the new information about the impact that a suspect area was having on people. I was right because impact surveys alone have proven to be very misleading when conducted by staff appointed for their language skills rather than any knowledge of how mines are used, what a mined-area looks like and how they may be cleared.

The rapid impact surveys were as inaccurate as the rapid mined-area surveys that preceded them, and perhaps of less use. When impact surveyors visit an area and discuss the threat with local people, they can easily be misled. Sometimes their own enthusiasm to be successful at finding threat areas may contribute to inaccuracies. Other times, the local people may overstate the problem for reasons varying from a desire to please to the desire for a mine-clearance group to come and spend money in their district. Whatever the reason may be, it is widely acknowledged that impact survey generally does not give a true indication of the extent of hazardous areas. Apparently, it was always intended that impact survey should be followed up with a Technical Survey prior to clearance prioritisation and tasking. This would rarely be cost effective, and what technical survey occurs is usually conducted by demining organisations directly preceding the Search & Clearance of a reduced area. Part of the reason for this may be that donors do not recognise the fact that technical survey is as important as (often more important than) wide area Search & Clearance when the desired end result is the rapid release of land that is safe to use.

My experience is of impact survey leading to hazardous areas being misreported in terms of scale. Sometimes the surveyors combined discrete threat areas into one large area. This was probably done because they did not visit the sites and confirm the threats, so they were uncertain where one might end and another start. It was easier to take a GPS reading from a known safe point and crudely estimate the area to be cleared. For example, a minefield at the top of a mountain pass was reported to measure 15 square kilometres when in fact the total mined area is less than half of one square kilometre. A demining group started work in the area and did not carry out " area reduction" by "Technical Survey" because the Mine Action Centre had given them the entire reported area as a single "clearance task". Local people laughed at the deminers because they were clearing places where the locals regularly harvested hay while they ignored those areas where accidents with people and livestock had occurred.

In this example, so alled 'expert' advisors had no experience of technical survey and no apparent desire to avoid wasting donor money searching areas with no explosive hazards. The national staff listened to the local people, but lacked the confidence (or the authority) to make any decision to reduce the area themselves. With no one wishing to take responsibility for a decision that could be wrong, a country with a small mine problem was set to take seventy years to achieve a mine-safe environment.

What they needed was a method of re-assessing recorded hazardous areas with a view to reducing the over-estimate without missing genuinely hazardous land. The method had to be such that it could be applied and subjected to Quality Assurance checks with a level of objectivity that meant that no individual could be blamed if it was later discovered that the land had been released in error. At its simplest, the method uses a checkbox resurvey that can release some land and confirm other land very quickly and with a very high level of confidence. The process becomes more difficult where there is some evidence of a threat, but not enough evidence to convince everyone. The method of assessing uncertainties has to be agreed in order to avoid having to treat all uncertain land as hazardous. This agreement should be between the Surveyors, the National Mine Action Authority and the donors paying for the work, and so will vary from country to country. My suggested criteria are detailed in Chapter 3 of the Global SOPs.

Risk management - and NTE

Deciding where to work is always a Risk Management activity. In any post-conflict mined country, there is always a risk that items of ordnance or mines might be almost anywhere. When the threats include aerially dispersed mines and submunitions this is even more likely. Payloads may have been dispersed in the wrong place especially at night, when the weather is bad or when aircraft are under fire.

If this may have happened, must you check the whole country? Of course not.

A series of decisions can be made about where to search and when to decide that there is "No Threat Evidence " in an area. I have found the term 'No-Threat-Evidence' (NTE) especially useful. For example, there is probably NTE in your own garden, so you will not ask anyone to spend a lot of money searching it for explosive hazards. However, if your child comes into the house holding a piece of UXO she has found in the garden you may decide that there is now a reason to believe that there is a risk, and set out to minimise it. Minimising the perceived risk may mean searching the whole garden with a professional demining team, but perhaps not. If your child found the item in an old rubbish pit, you may decide that only the rubbish pit needs to be investigated. The context matters greatly. So does the discovered item. An unfuzed relic from fifty years ago should cause a lot less concern than a touch-sensitive submunition discovered after a recent conflict.

The "impact" of clearance is important. Limited resources mean that areas where there is known to be a risk to the local population should be cleared before hazardous areaswhere no one goes, and so no one is at any immediate risk. For this reason, even a known mined area could present "No Immediate Risk", and so be given a low tasking priority by the National Mine Action Authority.

Impact is the effect that the presence of a threat from munitions (or the believed presence of that threat) has on the users of the land. There may have been accidents with people or livestock. The people may be unable to use the land and so suffer food and resource shortages that impact on health. The people may be unable to cross the land to reach water, woodland, fields, markets, health centres or schools.

The impact of the perceived threat may be higher than any real risk. For example, a small minebelt of sixty mines in good condition might reasonably be thought of as presenting a higher threat than a minefield of ten thousand mines that have atrophied to such an extent that their detonators are no longer capable of functioning. However, if no one will use the large mined area because of the fear of these 'dead' mines, it may be a higher humanitarian priority to clear them than to deal with the smaller minefield of 'live' mines. The National Mine Action Authority might reasonably make clearance of an area with "No Immediate Risk" a higher priority that areas with a "Known Risk".

And in many areas there will be a 'perceived risk' that is not proven to exist. A perceived risk may need to be processed as a high priority if it impacts heavily on the users of the land, but that process need not involve full Search & Clearance until the reason to believe that there is a Known Risk becomes compelling. Area reduction processes and/or confidence building processes should be used in these areas. For example, people believe that a protective minebelt of anti-personnel blast mines was placed in front of an old military position. There have been no accidents, no loss of livestock, and the military deny having used mines at the place. It might be decided to drive over the area with a light flail followed up by close visual inspection (BAC) for evidence of broken mines. If nothing is found, Explosive Detecting Dogs might be run over the area afterwards to increase confidence. Alternatively, deminers might cut exploratory breaches across the area using manual clearance methods as they do in Technical Survey. Depending on what is discovered, parts of the area may be redefined as having a high probability of there being hazards there (a High Probability Area, HPA) or as having "No Threat Evidence ". Any HPA should reward the application of full Search & Clearance procedures with explosive hazards being discovered. Areas with "No Threat Evidence " can be Reduced or Cancelled because there is no reason to believe that they are hazardous. "No Threat Evidence" areas will not be released as having been 'Cleared', but released as being 'Presumed Clear'.