Floods and Landmines: déjà vu all over again

As soon as the media calls began it hit me this is déjà vu all over again. The media were calling about the massive flooding in Bosnia and Herzegovina and how that would affect the landmine situation in the country. Due to the success of the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines Canadian media do not often call these days about landmines. Regardless of how impressive the progress towards a mine-free world has been for the media it is not newsworthy.

However, a natural disaster involving a dangerous, indiscriminate and inhumane weapon, now that the media could get excited about.

Yet for me it wasn’t really news. It had happened before (déjà vu), in fact, a number of times (déjà vu all over again) hence the use of the late, great baseball player Yogi Berra’s reference to “déjà vu all over again”. Berra was famous for these rather odd quotes which strangely enough were both usually accurate and often profound.

The fears that the major flooding in Bosnia had dislodged landmines and moved them from marked minefields or known hazardous areas was also experienced in Mozambique in 1998 and Nicaragua (2000) among others.  

The danger of landmines moving from known, marked or suspected areas to a new location, where people in the community think the land is safe, is very real. The fact that it could and should have been prevented is tragic more than newsworthy.

Fifteen years after the Ottawa Treaty  became international law much more progress in clearing contaminated areas was possible and should have happened in Bosnia. Tools to do the job are well known and available, but they require the political will and sustained funding to get the job done. Not enough of either was present in Bosnia.

So when the floods hit the threat posed by submerged landmines emerged again.  The uncertainty over whether the mines had moved, and to where, made the crisis caused by the unprecedented flooding into a new, even more dangerous situation. More time, money and resources will be needed to make the land safe again.

Other countries have made much more progress than Bosnia has done to date. Nicaragua, of the 1998 floods, is now mine-free. Mozambique, of the 2000 floods, is expected to become mine-free this year. Mozambique will join more than two dozen formerly affected countries, which have cleared landmines from their land, and removed those lethal barriers to development in their country.

One of the lessons from the flooding in Bosnia is that the threat posed by landmines does not go away until all the mines are gone and the land is declared mine-free. That reminds me of another Yogi Berra quote, “it’s not over until it is over”.

For Bosnia it was flooding that reminded everyone of the risks created by landmines, but it can also be caused by other natural disasters like earthquakes and fires. It is never over until the land is cleared to internationally agreed humanitarian standards.  

Governments of affected countries and donors alike need to keep this in mind and plan to get this job done as quickly as possible. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines has issued a challenge to complete the job in 10 years. With very few exceptions it can be done. That would really be news and I look forward to taking those calls!