In December 2023, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the US published a report ‘From the Ground Up: Demining Farmland and Improving Access to Fertilizer to Restore Ukraine’s Agricultural Production’. The report highlighted the urgent need for ‘the safe and expeditious demining of Ukraine’s farmland and increasing farmers’ access to fertilizer’ recognising that this is essential not just to Ukraine’s recovery, but to food security worldwide.
The report concluded ‘Rebuilding Ukraine’s agriculture sector from the ground up must involve identifying the optimal set of soil testing methods for Ukraine’s agricultural soils and scaling up a national infrastructure for such testing within Ukraine in the face of numerous, concurrent challenges imposed by Russia’s war’.
Making the land safe
Mine Action groups aim to ‘make land safe, save lives and help communities rebuild their lives’ through mine or explosives removal.
Such programmes need accurate surveys and clear, up-to-date maps of the affected areas showing:
• boundaries delineating areas to be cleared,
• the assessment of threats in certain areas
• the actual position of each landmine after clearance.
However, one of the most important uses of the maps is when they are presented to the local community and national authorities on completion of a successful clearance operation, ‘providing visual information on reclaimed areas which will allow local communities to access their land and infrastructure again’. In the context of Ukraine, this raises a number of questions:
Is that enough?
The goal is to ensure the productivity of the land and the food security of communities. This may require further remediation of the soil and confirmation that it is clear of contaminants.
What might be the benefits if it was possible to carry out a physio-chemical analysis of the soil when the demining teams are working on the land? It is crucial to know whether the clear land has underlying contamination which might preclude growing crops on it for human or animal consumption.
The contaminant signature could help to build an understanding of the dynamics of the contamination. If linked to hyperspectral imaging , this could create a new tool in autonomous threat detection.
Does physio-chemical analysis of the soil add to the complexity of the demining operation?
Not necessarily. Compact pXRF equipment could enable such testing to be done in situ. The potential of this has been demonstrated in a research collaboration between the Royal Agricultural University in the UK and Ukraine's National Agrarian University in Sumy.
In the longer-term integration with environmental monitoring of contamination and carbon status could be hugely important to the local community and the country, ensuring the demining organisation deliver more value to their beneficiaries and explore innovative ways of scaling their hazard mapping capabilities.
From maps to digital twins
In parts of Ukraine, the mine and explosive contamination is in urban and heavily industrialised areas. This adds to the complexity of the demining operation and the potential value of creating ‘a digital twin’ of the site to be cleared, so that other kinds of hazard and contamination can be documented. This is particularly important where the area may have been a ‘scene of crime’ requiring a forensic examination along with the demining operation.
A further example of more detailed examination of contaminated land is the growing evidence of the link between heavy metal contamination and anti-microbial resistance.
Ensuring a better legacy
Precision agriculture uses satellite position data, remote sensing devices and proximal data gathering technologies. It enables an information-based decision-making approach to farm management, to optimise returns on inputs.
There is a fit between the technology and skills needed for precision agriculture and those required for demining and regeneration of agricultural land. It thus may make sense to build on the expertise in precision agriculture of Ukraine’s agricultural universities, and that of its environmental scientists.
In exploring ways of improving the effectiveness of demining, it will be important to capitalise on advances in the geospatial sector.
Challenges to overcome
The scarcity of funding means that there will be resistance to additional cost, if it is not offset by clear improvements in productivity, with economic benefits to the community. There is an additional challenge because of the environmental impact of the demining activities – particularly the destruction of explosive material and waste that it creates.
In 2021, Mine Action Review published ‘Environmental impacts of explosive ordnance contamination’. The review concluded:
‘Clearance programmes have a responsibility to “do no harm” to the communities in which they work, which includes mitigating the negative environmental impact of their activities and systematically integrating environmental assessments into the planning process.
Clearance programmes have a responsibility to “do no harm” to the communities in which they work, which includes mitigating the negative environmental impact of their activities and systematically integrating environmental assessments into the planning process.
Clearing ordnance inevitably has an environmental impact, but employing efficient and effective land release methods minimises this impact by ensuring that assets are only used on contaminated land.
The environmental impact of clearance programmes goes beyond the clearance itself and also includes the generation of waste, soil degradation from vegetation removal or mechanical demining, and pollution resulting from the detonation of items of explosive ordnance. Even small changes can make a positive difference to the protection of the natural environment, and environmental mitigation measures may demand only limited additional resources.
Post-clearance land use should be actively considered when planning clearance activities, particularly in areas where contamination can be protective of certain aspects of the natural environment. Over the medium to long term, climate change has the potential to significantly impact mine action activities, both in how tasks are prioritised and how mine clearance is conducted.
Most mine action actors are not yet gathering and reporting sufficient data on the environmental impact of their work. The sector would benefit from increasing the evidence base of what works and what doesn’t in terms of environmental mitigation interventions. The mine action sector would benefit from further cross-sectoral experience from, and knowledge sharing with, environmental organisations and institutions involved in community-based sustainable agriculture, forest preservation, and environmental safeguarding. Involving environmental experts together with local communities from the start of the land release process is key to improving environmental management practices.
The above shows how the environmental challenge could be perceived as adding to costs as opposed to accelerating the regeneration of productive land with its social and economic benefits.
In conclusion, mine clearance operations can and should go beyond simply removing the immediate threat of explosives. By collaborating with experts in environmental monitoring and agricultural land regeneration, mine action organizations can create a more holistic approach that delivers lasting benefits to communities and the environment.
• Physio-chemical analysis of soil during demining: This can identify underlying contamination, inform land use decisions, and contribute to a valuable database for future threat detection.
• Digital twins: Particularly relevant in complex areas like urban settings, digital twins can map not only explosive hazards but also other contaminants, aiding forensic investigations and future land management.
• Precision agriculture: Leveraging existing expertise in Ukraine, integrating precision agriculture with land regeneration efforts can optimize land use and maximize food security.
• Environmental considerations: Mine action organizations must prioritize "doing no harm" by employing efficient clearance methods, minimizing waste, and actively considering post-clearance land use. Sharing knowledge with environmental experts and local communities is crucial for effective environmental management.
• Cost concerns: Demonstrating the economic benefits of environmental considerations, such as increased land productivity, sustainable agriculture and community development, is key to securing funding.
• Data and knowledge gaps: Gathering and sharing data on the environmental impact of mine clearance and collaborating with other sectors are essential for accelerating innovation in this field.
By embracing a holistic approach that prioritizes environmental considerations and long-term land productivity, mine action organizations can transform from simply clearing land to actively regenerating communities and their ecosystems. Such a collaborative effort, combining expertise in demining, environmental monitoring, and agriculture, has the potential to create a lasting legacy of peace, prosperity, and sustainability.