The conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 after nearly two decades of civil war, but recovery continues to be hindered by the threat from landmines and unexploded munitions hidden across communities once in the conflict's path. As a result, over 73,000 Sri Lankans remain displaced and waiting, wanting only to return home safely. But a unique challenge arises in Sri Lanka and countless other post-conflict communities around the world when these hidden killers are discovered in the very heart of rural agricultural communities: the village well.
Contaminated wells are among the lingering legacies of years of fighting. Reconstruction and resettlement initiatives are commonly blocked by improperly abandoned landmines and other explosive remnants of war. In response to this problem, the United States has stepped up its support to Sri Lankan communities through one of the world's most active humanitarian demining programs. With the clearance of these mines and other explosives, the displaced people of Sri Lanka can resume their agricultural practices and safely retrieve drinking water.
The United States is among several nations supporting four non-governmental organizations (NGOs) taking on the daunting task of clearing the land and wells across Sri Lanka. These NGOs -- the Danish Demining Group (DDG), the HALO Trust, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) -- have contributed personnel, training, and other resources in support of Sri Lanka's demining program.
The NGOs provide valuable training for Sri Lankan deminers, provide humanitarian assistance such as making water potable, and help contribute to "mine awareness" through community-based education. For example, in addition to the doubly dangerous task of clearing explosives from the bottom of water wells, efforts to promote community safety include placing "mine awareness" posters on wells' outer walls. By informing communities about the dangers of landmines in the wells, the NGOs hope to decrease the number of accidents.
The contamination of water wells with landmines and other unexploded munitions is not a problem confined to Sri Lanka. Almost 3,000 miles away in the Southern Caucasus region, Azerbaijan faces a similar problem. Throughout Azerbaijan's decades as part of the Soviet Union, the Soviet army utilized many regions in Azerbaijan as training and targeting sites, leaving behind unwanted and dangerous unexploded mortars and artillery shells. Additional hazards can be traced to Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia in which forces often used wells to store their weapons, or left explosives in the wells when retreating. Following the cease-fire in 1994, too many of these weapons were forgotten and left for locals to find, with tragic results.
Because of these hazards, the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) has developed a humanitarian demining program to clear the water wells. ANAMA is Azerbaijan's quasi-governmental NGO responsible for demining the entire country. At the start of the project, ANAMA conducted a survey that concluded that almost 400 wells in former battle areas are still affected by landmines. ANAMA works to train specialized demining teams that are able to respond quickly to a location where landmines or abandoned munitions have been uncovered. These response teams are trained to clear mines from water wells in residential areas as well as irrigation sources to allow communities to safely farm and retrieve water. As in Sri Lanka, ANAMA also posts landmine safety announcements on the side of their water wells, along with instructions that guide locals on how to report contaminated wells.
The United States is proud to be the world's single largest financial support of Conventional Weapons Destruction, including Humanitarian Mine Action, helping countless communities recover from conflicts by safely clearing landmines and unexploded munitions. Since 1993, the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department of State's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office (PM/WRA) has delivered more than $1.9 billion in support to 81 countries, saving countless lives through clearance operations, risk education, and survivors' assistance programs administered by more than 60 NGOs worldwide. PM/WRA works closely with both the Sri Lankan and Azerbaijan governments, as well as NGOs involved with each country.
The efforts of ANAMA, HALO Trust, FSD, DDG, and MAG have demonstrated to communities that their governments are taking the necessary steps to provide a safe area to live and work. These NGOs work to build capacity in recipient countries to enable the development of self-sustaining demining teams and the continuation of humanitarian assistance. Much work remains ahead, but each day, thanks to support from the United States and other countries dedicated to this challenging humanitarian task, families in Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, and dozens of other countries are making their communities safer.