Dark and Dangerous Waters: Cambodia’s First Underwater Deminers Will Make Rivers Safer

Posted by Katherine Baker
September 13, 2013

Nearly three decades of armed conflict has left much of Cambodia with serious hazards from landmines and unexploded ordnance, not only on the land, but also in its waterways.  Thirty-five Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) students, most of whom did not know how to swim, volunteered to be among the first Cambodian deminers to learn to dive and to clear these hazards from deep and swift waters. 

An underwater demining student rests during the ocean-based portion of Golden West’s Diver Preparation Course in Cambodia. [Photo courtesy of Nick Street]

During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of tons of grenades, bombs, and other ammunition sunk into the pitch-black waters of Cambodian rivers.  They now create a security risk to local communities and slow vital development projects, such as construction of bridges and irrigation systems.  With grant funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in its Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation conducted the first CMAC-Golden West Diver Preparation Course.  After an intensive four-week course, thirteen of the CMAC volunteers were transformed from novice swimmers to capable divers able to operate underwater without the use of their sight and ready to tackle the task of retrieving UXO from the zero-visibility depths of Cambodia’s rivers. 

An underwater demining student searches for training ordnance while wearing a blackout mask in Cambodia. [Photo courtesy of Nick Street.] 

Ten of these students graduated with the full rating of Second Class Diver and will form the first CMAC dive unit.  These pioneers will continue their training with Golden West and the U.S. Department of Defense Humanitarian Demining Training Center, and undertake advanced salvage exercises.  They are the foundation of a key national capacity for ensuring public safety and facilitating development. 

After additional training with U.S. Army salvage divers, the CMAC dive unit’s first tasks will be to search shallow waterways where locals are likely to look for ordnance.  Cambodian civilians have placed themselves in danger to collect ordnance sunk in shallow water, so that they can sell it on the black market.  The explosives are in demand for quarrying and dynamite fishing but could also be a source of materiel for terrorist and criminals.  With the experience gained in shallow waters, the divers will begin to work in the depths of Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers -- searching for ordnance in the pitch-black waters, unable to see the dangers they face while making Cambodia a safer place. 

Under the Conventional Weapons Destruction Program -- a partnership among the State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the United States has invested more than $2 billion in humanitarian mine action and conventional weapons destruction programs in more than 90 countries since 1993.  As a result, the United States has helped 15 countries become mine-impact free, disposed of more than 33,000 man-portable air-defense systems, and destroyed over 1.6 million excess, loosely-secured, or otherwise at-risk small arms and light weapons.  Additionally, U.S. assistance has funded mine-risk education, survivor’s assistance programs, and research and development to produce technologies that mitigate the threat of explosive remnants of war.  Through these efforts, the United States is working toward a safer, more secure environment in Cambodia and other countries around the globe. 

For more information, check out our annual report on Conventional Weapons Destruction: To Walk the Earth in Safety.

About the Author: Katherine Baker serves as Policy Adviser in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.

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