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 personnel, 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 a decision is 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.

A rapid impact survey is as inaccurate as the rapid mined-area surveys that preceded them, and may be 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 clearance groups directly preceding the 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) area clearance when the desired end result is the rapid release of land that is safe to use.

My recent 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, expatriot 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.

Risk management - and NKR

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 clear and when to decide that there is "No Known Risk" in an area. I have found the term "No-Known-Risk" (NKR) especially useful. For example, there is probably NKR 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 clearing 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 minefields where 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 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 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. Depending on what is discovered, parts of the area may be redefined as having a "Known Risk" or as having "No Known risk". Any area with a "Known Risk" should reward the application of full clearance processes with mines/ERW being discovered. Areas with "No Known Risk" can be released for use because there is no reason to believe that they are hazardous. "No Known Risk" areas will not be released as having been "cleared", merely as having no known reason why they should be cleared. They will be "reduced".

Definitions of area-reduction concepts

    1. No Known Risk (NKR) - no compelling reason to believe there is a risk to people in an area. This means than an area previously recorded as presenting a risk can be released without being subjected to clearance processes. The release of areas previously recorded as hazardous without having processed the land with any full clearance techniques is usually referred to as "Area-reduction".
    2. Known Risk (KR) - compelling reason to believe there is a risk to people in an area. This means that the area must be subjected to appropriate clearance processes before being released for public use.
    3. No Immediate Risk (NIR) - no compelling reason to believe that any risk there may be in an area adversely effects people at this time. A Known Risk area may also be an NIR area. This means that the area can be given a low priority in a list of clearance tasks that is prioritised according to their impact on people.
    4. Perceived Risk (PR) - people believe that there is a threat but there is no compelling evidence to support their belief. In this case, area-reduction and/or confidence building processes will be appropriate. The priority given to this kind of task will be dictated entirely by the "impact" that the demining work will have on people wanting to use the land.

All of these terms are defined using the word "compelling", which means that the user must take the risk seriously. So what makes the decision of a surveyor conducting area-reduction "compelling"?

Compelling

What one person finds "compelling" may differ from the opinion of another because one person may not interpret the significance of a piece of information in the same way as another. To keep consistency across the area reduction process, a method has to be put in place so that the interpretations of individual surveyors are minimised. This protects individual surveyors and spreads the responsibility for each decision throughout those responsible for Mine Action.

So the point at which information about an area compels it to be listed as having a Known Risk must be decided by those in authority. In the example that follows, I give a suggestion that I think will fit a lot of places. If it does not fit yours, I hope it will give you a starting point to develop your own.

Reducing suspect areas

The application of a series of questions should start the process- and the answers may mean that the actual area need not even be visited.

Is there evidence of a threat?

1) Visible threat

2) Accidents with livestock

3) Accidents with people

4) Reports from those who placed mines or witnessed their placement

5) Inhabitants unwilling to use the land because they believe that the area is dangerous due to ERW.

If any of the above are ticked, the area must be visited and subjected to a "Confidence check" or "Technical Survey". If none of the above are ticked, the area has NKR and should not be subjected to any demining activity. It can be "reduced" on paper and recorded as having NKR.

Visiting the nearest settlement(s)

Arrive in the district and speak to as many of the local people who report the threat as possible (starting with the local representatives, but do not speak only with them). Interview each person on their own and without others overhearing. Write down the answers and the names of those giving information. Children may roam more widely than others so may provide good general information, although they are often poor on detail. Marginalised adults tending livestock may also know more than most. Never presume that reported distances, times and numbers are accurate. Also, never presume that people use the same names for things that you do. This applies to places, features and devices.

Take with you a printed collection of real photographs of all the threats that could be in the area and see whether anyone can identify them. The photograph collection should include clear pictures of all common devices in real situations (photographed in previous working areas with a similar context whenever possible). If the same items are identified by more than one informant (interviewed separately), there is a high chance that those items are present. Other, concealed items may also be present.

If there have been accidents to people or livestock, question people closely about the injuries received. The extent of injury can make it clear whether the threat was a fragmentation or a blast device, a large item of ordnance or a small mine. Question victims or witnesses closely about the circumstances surrounding each accident. Local shepherds huddled around a fire at night and putting on an item of broken ordnance because they know that the explosive will burn is a rather different accident than the same shepherds tripping an OZM-72 fragmentation mine, but the injuries can be similar.

What devices are reported to be present in previous survey or minefield records?...........................................

What devices are reported to be present by locals?...........................................................................................

Are any of the reported threats anti-personnel mines? Yes/No

Are they blast or fragmentation mines? Blast/Fragmentation/Both

Are any mines tripwire operated? Yes/No

Are the tripwires intact? Yes/No/Uncertain

Is there any suggestion of anti-lift or booby-trap devices? Yes/No

Are any of the reported threats anti-vehicle or anti-tank mines? Yes/No

If none of the reported threats are mines, may any of the ordnance be movement sensitive?

If ordnance is identified that the surveyor does not have details about, that detail should be sourced through the International community.

From the answers to the above, you can decide whether the task includes a minefield or is a Battle Area. If it is a Battle Area, knowing which devices or generic type of device can help when determining what assets to deploy when the area is cleared.

It is possible that there will be no information about the above and that the Surveyors will have to deduce the likely threat with help from accident details.

Write down the perceived threat - and the Surveyors' confidence that it is correct and complete. Experience in similar situations may make the surveyors suspect the presence of unreported devices.

What is the threat?........................................................................................................

What condition is it in? ................................................................................................

Is there any reason to believe that other devices are present? Yes/No

If "Yes", what is that reason? ..........................................................................................

Is the threat likely to be above ground? Yes/No

Going to the reported threat area

The accident record shows that surveying is not an especially hazardous Mine Action activity. Even so, surveyors should take all the precautions common in demining. A survey team should comprise a minimum of four people including a medic. All should have the widest possible experience of demining, with everyone trained in first-aid, basic demining and device recognition skills. They should take PPE and the widest range of detection tools possible. For example, a mini-flail would often be an invaluable surveying asset. In many cases it could give easy access and allow a confidence check to be carried out on reduced areas during the survey. The minimum medical backup required by the NMAA for demining should accompany the surveyors whenever they intend to enter a potential threat area. When this includes an ambulance vehicle within a short distance and access makes this impossible, an amendment to the minimum NMAA requirement should be requested.

The surveying team should be able to communicate with their base. This may be by satellite telephone when necessary. They should notify their base before any visit to a reported threat area is made.

Surveyors should be taken to the area by the local people who report the presence of a threat. The only time when this need not be done is when the only reason to expect a threat is because a minefield is recorded on minefield maps received from combatants or from reliable informants. If local people will not accompany the Surveyors to the perimeter of the area believed hazardous, attempts should be made to persuade them. In some cases, a gift or a small payment may be appropriate. It should be stressed to the guides that they should not lead the team into the mined area, just into its vicinity. Surveyors should use paths, roads or tracks and be led by the local guides. In some cases it can be advisable to approach the area on mules or horseback to ensure that the surveyors arrive fresh and able to think clearly, carrying the appropriate equipment.

The reported area should, whenever possible, be viewed from all sides. It may be appropriate to climb nearby hills to gain an overview of the area. Surveyors should take photographs of the area, including any landmarks used by the local guides. If undergrowth is too dense to get an overview, they should use the most detailed maps available and regularly check exactly where they are as they progress. Do not try to complete this in a hurry. An extra day spent at this stage may save thousands of deminer working days later.

The purpose of the visit is to conduct area-reduction and threat verification, so the Surveyors should already have at least one map. That map may be entirely inaccurate, but it should be consulted and reference made to it when recording the new perimeters of the threat area.

If local people use any part of the area for access, grazing, crop-gathering or anything else, the places that are used should be recorded (GPS) and reduced UNLESS there have been accidents or devices discovered inside that area. Surveyors should stay inside the area believed to be safe when recording co-ordinates. When no accidents or devices have been found inside the used area, the area believed to be safe will include the places that are used by local people. Generally, surveyors must use paths and tracks that are used by locals if they are to conduct their work, and this includes paths and tracks that pass through areas that may be hazardous.

When devices have been found within a used area, the device type and condition is important. Some ordnance is generally considered to present a very low threat. Many mortar bombs and some grenades fall into this category. Perhaps surprisingly, the same can be true of some mines. For example, POMZ-2 mines on wooden stakes that have all fallen over and without intact tripwires may represent a low-threat. Both the fuze and the explosive have often reliably separated from the mine bodies. When people use the land around them and there have been no accidents, it may be appropriate to move through the area guided by locals who regularly do so. In cases like this, the area should be accurately recorded with GPS so that the residual threat can be cleared later using appropriate assets (in this case that might be by using visual BAC methods after random metal detector checks confirmed an absence of AP blast mines from the mine pattern).

It is possible that surveyors will have to cross an uncertain area in order to reach another used area or path that is presumed to be safe. Depending on the assessed threat, surveyors may use confidence building or Technical Survey techniques to move across an uncertain area as long as they have appropriate medical backup. No ground processing methods can be used without the approved medical support being present. To do this appropriately, a preliminary assessment of the threat will have to be made. This should be recorded in writing.

Assessing the threat

To assess the threat the survey team must have a list of identified mines and ordnance. They must also have an idea of the condition of the devices and details of the accidents to people and livestock that have been reported.

If a conflict has been over for some time, some devices will have reliably decayed. For example, PFM mines that were air scattered will have been attacked by weather and sunlight. The cases will often have split and the liquid explosive evaporated. What is left contains a small detonator but it is not easy to set off and presents a very small threat.

pfm decayed on ground

It can be handled with caution...

pfm held in hand

Knowledge of the devices should be augmented by knowledge of the context. For example, the land may be flat, rocky and overgrown or bare hillside. There may be so much undergrowth that the ground can rarely be seen. The context should be photographed so that any demining team that follows will know what it will have to deal with.

The context can affect a decision over what to do next. If the survey team has secure funding and are able to schedule survey tasks well in advance, they may decide to return at another time of year when some of the problems have been resolved by seasonal change. Very wet ground may have dried out, snow may have melted, or winter may have killed off undergrowth. For example, when the threat is believed to be on the surface and visible at another time of year, a decision to return later might be appropriate.