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Issue 7.2, August 2003

Socio-Economic Impact of Landmines in Iraq

Years of war and internal conflict have left Iraq littered with landmines, UXO and stockpiled munitions. Mr. Johan Van Der Merwe of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Colonel Lionel Dyck, MineTech chairman, describe the hazards Iraqis face that threaten normal activity and disrupt socio-economic redevelopment.

by Jennette Townsend, MAIC


The socio-economic impact of landmines, UXO and stockpile munitions extends across multiple areas, including:

Deminers, their equipment and their camps are constantly placed at risk by hostile forces. c\o Sean Sutton

The indirect impact of landmines includes malnutrition/starvation and the spread of infectious diseases, in part due to the inability to repair water purification systems and to provide public health services in regions isolated by mines and UXO.1 Mines and UXO are claiming lives, disabling future generations, creating insecurity and fear, and hindering the return to normalcy.2

Accessing Public Areas

Johan Van Der Merwe, Technical Advisor with UNOPS, and Colonel Dyck, chairman of MineTech International, a leading mine clearance contractor, were recently in Iraq. Johan Van Der Merwe observed, “In the south, one of the biggest problems is stockpiled munitions. Wide ranges of munitions are stockpiled everywhere—in schools, hospitals, in defensive positions and in normal military installations. The munitions ranged from small arms to missiles and even suicide vests.” Thousands of projectiles, unexploded bombs, cluster sub-munitions and other ordnance turn streets, mosques and even some homes into hazardous areas and restrict or endanger normal social activities. For example, Mines Advisory Group (MAG) recently found a stockpile of approximately 500–700 AP mines stored in a mosque.3 The Area Mine Action Coordination Team (AMACT) has been conducting assessments in the Basra area and has seen hundreds of munitions caches and a number of massive munitions depots, which are causing great concern because the risk presented by the depots increases during the hot months.4 During the summer months, the temperatures are as high as 53˚C. “Metal heats up hot enough to fry an egg,” says Colonel Dyck.

Numerous reports of death and injury associated with UXO and landmines confirm that children are especially at risk. For example:

Johan Van Der Merwe observed Iraqi convoys and anti-aircraft missiles on roads and in defensive positions—under bridges or behind mounds of sand, surrounding towns and villages. “Fully armed tanks are abandoned in the middle of the road. Anti-aircraft cannons had munitions still in the bridge block; all that is needed is someone to pull the trigger and the shot will be fired.” Several mine incidents along roads have been reported. In May, there were two incidents on the main airport road where AP mines were placed in plastic bags, and 11 incidents were reported on the Baghdad-Kirkuk road.7 The level of safety on roads will likely not improve until mine and UXO contamination is under control.

Salvaging Metal From Mines/UXO

Johan Van Der Merwe emphasizes that in a society with sanctions “nothing is left; everything is recycled.” He compared driving past a damaged vehicle to driving past an antelope killed by lions in Africa; “after a while, all you see is the white bones.” Likewise, each day he passed the abandoned vehicle, it was stripped more, until all that was left was the skeleton of the vehicle. Every nut and bolt has a use. Landmine markings, UXO and stockpiled munitions also attract civilians. Adults take packaging from depots and munitions factories and use the wood packaging material for firewood. Civilians have also been breaking apart munitions to get brass casings. There are huge amounts of explosives in private homes as people search for scrap copper, brass and aluminum with little regard for danger.4

Iraqis are stealing minefield markings, placing the general population at considerable risk. Johan Van Der Merwe explains, “The markings are taken back into society where tape may be used as rope and a picket can be used in fences. As a result, kids play in at-risk areas and adults go into these areas to get firewood.” In the Basra region, MineTech International counteracted the problem by using mine risk education (MRE) teams to tell locals that if the markers continued to be stolen, the mine removal teams would no longer be able to assist them and the UXO would remain indefinitely.

MAG describes landmines and UXO as a “vital economic resource” for many poor people who, in addition to salvaging scrap metal, sometimes use the explosive content of mines and UXO for fishing or to sell at markets. MAG reported an incident where a man lost four of his children and two friends in mine/UXO salvaging accidents. He has been injured twice while collecting scrap and his two remaining children bear scars from the incident that killed their siblings.3

However, the legitimacy of the looting is often questionable, as Colonel Dyck mentions. He explains that bottled gas is widely available and can be bought for very little. In fact, all cooking is done with gas. Often looting for firewood is not legitimate. Dyck tells of an incident where, after seeing a train pass for the first time since the conflict, women from a suburb outside of Basra came out and dug up the wooden sleepers or ties, destroying the rail for no apparent reason. Dyck observed that most of the infrastructure damage has been done by the Iraqis themselves. Even the MineTech camp was looted. “The destruction is unbelievable,” says Dyck, “because there was no purpose in it. They did not take useful things.” Since the war, anything that was used for the government is being destroyed, even though Iraqis could potentially use what they are destroying to help themselves. However, in a number of places where Iraqis need help, they are doing it themselves. Dyck saw Iraqis using a crane to repair power lines to restore electricity. He says, “Some people are trying to make it work and some not.”

In general, “Looting is tremendous and growing daily, creating insurmountable problems,” says Colonel Dyck. In reference to the huge dumps of ammunition, he explains that there is “no way of dealing with it immediately. Therefore, we need policing to prevent the locals from getting into munitions dumps and stealing brass casings and leaving propellant on the floor.” Propellant burns like a match head—if it is scraped, it will go off. As a result, bunkers have exploded, killing civilians. Dyck emphasizes the need for getting the message to the people and for law to help restore order, but at this point, he is uncertain as to whether these two measures would be enough to stop the UXO problem.

Stockpiled munitions also present a danger in the sense that people can arm themselves. While in Iraq, Colonel Dyck had a meeting with the Sheik of Basra to gather information on areas such as schools and farms that have been hampered by the recent conflict. When Colonel Dyck returned the following day to meet again, the sheik could not meet because one of the “sub-sheiks” was murdered. He had previously worked for Saddam. Dyck explains, “People are settling their own scores. The country is being divided according to those who supported Saddam and those who did not.” He predicts that gangs will begin capitalizing on the lack of order.

Accessing Land

In southern Iraq, MineTech International has been working mostly with the Shiites living south of Basra, straddling the main access of advance of the coalition forces as they went north. MineTech has not done much demining but rather has been busy with battle area clearance—removing cluster bombs and M-42 bomblets left by coalition bombings of tank positions and road crossings. Unfortunately, the ground is so soft that a lot of the bomblets have not gone off. Colonel Dyck explains that a lot of the farmers have been affected by cluster bombs. MineTech has been clearing areas where the main crop seems to be tomatoes. The locals are receptive and thankful for their help. One farmer gave them tomatoes as a token of appreciation, explaining that he would now be able to return to supplying tomatoes, which he couldn’t do because of the first war and the recent conflict.

Though little fighting took place in the three northern governorates, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reports that during the first half of May 2003, more than 80 percent of the mine/UXO victims known of in northern Iraq were from the “new hazardous areas” that have become apparent since the conflict.8 Before the recent conflict, many mines were laid in the northern governorates of Duhok, Erbil and Sulaimaniya, where numerous battles had taken place over the past three decades. According to the Northern Iraq Landmine Impact Survey, prepared by UNOPS, one-quarter of all the villages in northern Iraq had been affected socially and economically by landmines and UXO. In 2001 alone, about 30 people per month had been involved in accidents related to mines or UXO.4

In 2002, UNOPS completed its Landmine Impact Survey of the three northern governorates and determined that grazing and planting crops are the two main activities denied land in northern Iraq. Over a quarter of the population engages in herding activity and about 22 percent of the population raises crops. Grazing areas are most affected by landmines, especially around hillsides and mountaintops that were former military positions. Given the nomadic nature of the shepherds and their prominence throughout the region, this figure suggests that one out of three mine-impacted communities is affected by landmines planted in grazing areas.1

Repairing Infrastructure

Minefields and UXO pose an immediate threat to local authorities trying to re-establish the infrastructure. At present, one of the most pressing issues is water contamination. It takes a special kind of person to be a “water worker” in a highly volatile post-conflict environment. Repairing a water pipe or maintaining a pumping station can become an act of heroism. Serial looting, threats, sabotage and unexploded munitions are all part of daily life. At the end of May, Giorgio Nembrini, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) coordinator for water activities in southern Iraq, reported, “Yesterday, we were repairing a water main, damaged by shelling during the battle for Basra. I was amazed to see one of my workmen trying to pull an enormous shell out of the ground. We immediately stopped work and told the British forces, who have promised to eliminate the hazard.”5 “The water setup does not exist,” says Dyck. Water comes on in Basra for only three hours a day; the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is shipping in bottled water and coalition forces are working hard to restore water purifications systems but are having difficulty doing so because local people are creating more of a threat every day. For example, Iraqis dumped four or five containers of explosives into the water. Dyck also described a scenario in which solid rocket fuel is leaking into the water table.

In cooperation with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, the ICRC has also identified explosive remnants of war among garbage piling up along the roads.7 UNICEF has expressed concern that refuse collection activities in Baghdad are being affected by the threat of UXO. There are thought to be around 800 refuse sites in the city that are contaminated with cluster bombs and caches of dumped munitions.8 Dyck also mentions a situation in which Iraqis turned an ammunition dump into a toilet, creating a problem that was both unpleasant and difficult to clean up.


An emergency assessment of the socio-economic impact of mines and UXO is being implemented through the summer by different mine clearance agencies: MineTech and MAG in southern Iraq, the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation (VVAF) in the north.8 The assessments will provide a clearer picture of the long-term socio-economic impact of landmines in Iraq.


  1. Northern Iraq Landmine Impact Survey Executive Summary: UNOPS.








Contact Information

Mr. Johan Van Der Merwe
United Nations Office for Project Services
Technical Advisor
The Chrysler Building
405 Lexington Avenue, 4th floor
New York, NY 10174
Tel: 212-457-1283/4049

Colonel L. Dyck
MineTech International
22 York Avenue
Harare, Zimbabwe
Tel: 776531, 776216, 746230
Fax: 746902

Jennette Townsend