Landmine Statistics: Numbers To Count On

The number of unexploded landmines in this world is huge and all too real.  Unfortunately, nobody knows that number.  Records about laying mines were lost or never kept. Identifying markers were removed.  Survivors responsible for planting mines in war zones went home.  Vegetation grew.  Sands shifted.  Governments and humanitarian organizations could only estimate the numbers of residual landmines as they attempted to determine the scope of the overall problem.

In mathematics, the square root of a negative number is called an imaginary number.  In landmine statistics, the roots of the landmine numbers are often products of the imagination and educated guesses.  It’s tricky to count buried objects you haven’t unearthed.

For example, when doing research about landmine issues, I frequently stumble upon the number, 110 million — an estimate of the global number of unexploded mines to be removed.  The United Nations’ website displays the 110 million figure, while referencing an article by Nicolas E. Walsh and Wendy S. Walsh in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) 2003.   Pertinent text from that WHO bulletin includes the following:

Many mines remain from the Second World War; in addition, since the 1960s as many as 110 million mines have been spread throughout the world into an estimated 70 countries.

If one investigates the reference sources for that 2003 WHO bulletin, one will discover a report commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued in 1996 and revised in 1997.  In that ICRC report, The U.S. State Department estimated the number of uncleared landmines around the world to be about 84 million in a total of 64 countries, with 2-5 million new mines being put in the ground on an annual basis.  Thus, the 110 million figure appears to be an estimate derived from earlier estimates and the number of years that elapsed between preparation of the ICRC and WHO publications.

Fast forward to current times.  I’ve yet to find evidence that the 110 million figure often cited in today’s blogs and articles takes into account the number of landmines removed or planted since 2003.

To add to the confusion, a table in the 2003 WHO bulletin lists the estimated number of landmines in 21 of the 70 affected countries, including Egypt and Afghanistan.  The mine total for those 21 countries alone exceeds 110 million.  And according to “Explosive Remnants of War and Mines Other Than Anti-Personnel Mines” global survey 2003-2004, issued by Mines Action Canada, 75-80% of the 23 million landmines listed for Egypt are actually explosive remnants of war (ERW).  ERW are not technically landmines, although they can produce the same devastating results.

As for the numbers of landmines in Afghanistan?  The 2003 WHO report estimated 10 million in that country.  But I have encountered other published estimates ranging from 100,000 to 30 million.  HALO Trust, a knowledgeable nonprofit organization specializing in the removal of the hazardous debris of war, estimates that no more than 640,000 landmines have been laid in Afghanistan since 1979 (the year the Soviet Union started providing the Afghan government with military assistance against the Mujahideen).

Is it any surprise that humanitarian de-miners these days often talk about buried landmines in terms of land-area to be cleared and returned to productive use?  “Hectares” and “kilometers squared” may not sound as dramatic as “landmines,” but the numbers associated with them probably convey more accurate information.

After all, when discussing statistics it’s nice to have numbers you can count on.

Warm regards,

Laurel Anne Hill