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Fewer Casualties From Mines in Cambodia, but Reduced Funding Means Risk Remains

Children sit near a minefield outside their home in the northwestern Cambodian province of Battambang, one of the most heavily-mined in the country

The number of Cambodian casualties from land mines and explosives left from decades of conflict has been steadily declining. But cuts in donor funding for demining could see this trend reversed.

Cambodia has an unenviable reputation as one of the most heavily-mined countries on earth, along with countries such as Angola and Afghanistan.

So the news that the number of people killed or injured by land mines and leftover explosives dropped 10 percent last year is welcome.

Chhiv Lim heads the office that compiles the statistics on Cambodian mine casualties. He says more than 63,000 people have been killed or injured by mines and explosives since the Khmer Rouge government was driven out of power in 1979.

"From 1979 up to the year 2000 the number of casualties was still high because during that time Cambodia had the civil war, but since year 2000 until the year 2005 the number of casualties [was] still 800 per year," he said. "But since the year 2006 until now the number of casualties has dropped down - this is good news for Cambodia."

Chhiv Lim says that last year 243 people were killed or injured by land mines and leftover explosives in Cambodia, down from 271 the year before.

Chhiv Lim says the decline is due to Cambodia's demining program, which uses clearance teams from the government as well as from private groups such as Halo Trust and Mines Advisory Group, or MAG.

Efforts to educate people about the dangers of mines and explosives have also helped.

Jamie Franklin, the country head of MAG, says better coordination and improved clearance methods devised over the past two decades contributed to lower victim numbers too.

"And I think ongoing clearance and the increasing clearance that has been achieved over the last 10 years along with the risk-reduction and mine-risk education and the high level of awareness of the dangers of mines and UXO [unexploded ordnance] and the risks that they pose have helped contribute toward the ongoing reduction in annual casualty rates," said Franklin.

Franklin says the peace and stability that Cambodia has enjoyed since the civil war ended has also helped.

One-third of the casualties are children, and almost all of those are boys. Chhiv Lim says studies show men and boys tend to be more willing to play with or examine explosives than women are. "But some boys they're clever, [they say] 'I cannot play with this one, I must go home.' But there are still some boys whose behavior has not changed," he said.

That makes education a key part of the country's effort to reduce mine casualties.

Removing mines remains the primary task, and that is slow, dangerous and expensive work. Franklin says it took MAG's 15 de-mining teams the whole of last year to clear just three square kilometers, at a cost $3 million.

The Cambodian government says more than 600 square kilometers of land remains contaminated with land mines. Cambodia has signed the international treaty to ban land mines, and was supposed to clear all land mines by the end of last year.

Given the scale of the problem, that was impossible, and the country was recently granted a 10-year extension to rid itself of mines. But there is a risk that even the 2019 deadline could be missed.

MAG's Franklin says funding for demining worldwide is decreasing as donors switch spending priorities to other areas. If there is less money for removing mines, at a time when Cambodia's growing population needs more land, that could mean more casualties.

"And so there is a risk that if the support to clearance and the clearance reduces that we could see either a slowdown in the reduction of annual casualty rates or a reversal of the trend that we have been seeing for the last 15 to 17 years," he said.

Demining experts say if donors cut funding, Cambodia can not meet the 2019 deadline to make its people safe from land mines.