Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Elbow Grease and Lots of Kevlar

June 2nd, 2009 · 8 Comments

taiwanlandminesWe’re a sucker for unintentionally wry headlines, so we were delighted to come across this gem last night: “Demining efforts to make Taiwan’s Kinmen island more tourist-friendly.” Why, yes, that seems quite logical—few tourists are fond of vacationing amidst landmines.

Yet once we stopped chortling, we couldn’t help but become engrossed in Taiwan’s project. Kinmen was a site of savage fighting exactly 60 years ago, as Chiang Kai-shek’s retreating Chinese Nationalists were pursued by Mao Zedong’s Red Army. Judging by this tourist album from 2004, the island seems like one of those trapped-in-time places where Microkhan prefers to spend his holidays dollars. And perhaps once all the mines are gone, we’ll put Kinmen on our to-visit list.

How long might that take? Taiwan is aiming for 2013. The process takes so long because demining continues to be a largely by-hand effort. Though there have been several attempts to develop robots, and armored vehicles such as this modified Agri-flail can speed up the task somewhat, the bulk of the work must still be done by brave humans in bulky suits.

Technology fails here for two main reasons. For starters, the land must be left somewhat intact, so massive dredging operations are not viable. More importantly, the stakes are so high that we naturally feel ill-at-ease about entrusting machines to give us the “all clear.” And so deminers are forced to go through painstaking verification checklists—check out this account from Mozambique, where detection dogs are part of the equation:

Once the vegetation is removed, the land must be manually checked and cleared with advanced metal detectors and mine detection dogs. Warnock said the Board of Global Ministries has an agreement with RONCO, a U.S.-based corporation, to purchase seven trained dogs and provide them to ADP. Currently being trained in Zimbabwe, the dogs are expected to arrive in Mozambique in early January. They will receive additional training with human partners from the demining team.

The dogs are released into a one-meter section and can smell the TNT explosive in the soil. If any item is suspected, human deminers use metal detectors to verify the potential mine and remove it. If a mine detection dog determines that the section is clear of mines, it is marked and re-checked by a different dog the next day. When both dogs clear the site, it is deemed safe.

Warnock said none of the detection dogs used in Mozambique since 1996 have been lost because of a mine-related injury. But their ability to smell the TNT evaporates as temperatures rise, so the dogs and their handlers do their work very early in the day, often as soon as it is light enough. “Moister weather actually helps the dogs,” he added.

Mozambique, alas, has it much worse than Kinmen, with more than seven times the number of landmies still in place.

Bonus “fun” fact from the Taiwan gig: The landmine-clearance project is enjoying the consultative services of the delightfully named Explomo Technical Services. The Singapore company is not a military outfit, but rather a developer of fireworks shows and special effects. Hey, whatever pays the bills nowadays.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • eraserhead

    Is this RONCO company that’s supplying the dogs the same RONCO that sells the Pocket Fisherman? Vegematic?

    Please say no. Please.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @eraserhead: Fortunately for humanity, Ron Popeil has NOT branched out into the demining industry. Continue to sleep well.

    http://www.roncoconsulting.com/

    http://www.ronco.com/index.aspx

  • Jordan

    If you ever need good information about particular types of explosives, EOD websites are a good way to go. That’s how I learned about fuel-air bombs back in the day.

  • Russ Mitchell

    I did a story a few years ago for Travel Weekly about Mozambique, which has been open for tourism for years. The country’s past is horrendous, but one result of the long civil war and the intensive and extensive land mining is one of the last unspoiled beachscapes on Earth. The landmines kept development away while Thailand and all the other beautiful spots got overbuilt with hotels and spas and other civilized getaways. Mozambique’s long Indian Ocean coast is pretty much unspoiled and very lightly populated. Ever wanted to make love with someone on an uninhabited beach in paradise? Mozambique is the place. The country still has serious mine problems, but all the tourist zones have been cleared, and the beaches themselves were never mined in the the first place. So go!
    PS — The mines in Mozambique are sniffed out not by dogs; they use trained rats on leashes.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Thanks for the tip. I’m actually interested in the use of explosives in civil engineering projects (i.e. so-called explosives engineering). Expect a post in the not-too-distant future.

    @Russ: Are you serious ’bout the trained rats with leashes? Any pics? That sounds like prime Microkhan material. As for Mozambique as earthly Paradise, I believe it. I’ve heard similarly great things about Namibia, over on the Atlantic side. Probably take some motivation to arrange an affordable flight, though.

  • Jordan

    @Brendan

    If you’re going to do a post about explosives engineering, you need to at least mention some of the civil engineering ideas from the early nuclear bomb designers. Expanding canyons with atomic bombs for dams? Why not?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Great idea. Yeah, I’ve heard inklings of these plans, but don’t know much about the details. Def. on the “to investigate” list.

    The Bomb was certainly effective at remaking the geography of Bikini Atoll–albeit not for the better.

  • Man’s True Best Friend?

    [...] of Microkhan’s most faithful correspondents wrote in yesterday regarding our recent Taiwanese landmines post. Our piece quoted from a report on Mozambique’s mine removal program, which suggested that [...]

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