Decades and billions of dollars. When will Ukrainian fields and cities be cleared of Russian mines?

Over the last year, 185 civilians have been killed and several hundred were injured by mines in Ukraine. Photos of tractors that run over Russian shells during harvesting are often posted online.

These are the realities of the liberated regions. Ukraine is now one of the most mined countries in the world, and this problem will last for decades.

Several days of shelling are enough to make the land unfit for growing crops, and months of sapper work are needed to remove explosive devices from it.

Currently, Ukraine has neither the time nor the number of specialists. To continue harvesting, farmers hire sappers on the black market, which often leads to tragic accidents.

Not only farmers are suffering. During their retreat, Russian troops are mining communications and critical infrastructure in cities to make it difficult for Ukrainian businesses and local residents to return.

Full humanitarian demining will cost billions of dollars and require a lot of equipment and specialists.

A problem for decades

According to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in August 2022, Russians fired 40,000-60,000 shells at Ukrainian positions every day. Some of them did not explode.

According to various estimates, up to 20% of the fired ammunition did not work. In addition, if Russian soldiers stay in a certain area for a long time, they place mines in the forests and fields.

In Ukraine, all areas where there was fighting are considered to be contaminated with explosives. According to the Ukrainian Deminers Association, this is 139,000 square kilometers. That is, a fifth of the country’s territory needs to be checked.

According to the assessment of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, about 2 million hectares of fields have been mined in the liberated regions. Each year of downtime of this soil will cost the country’s economy up to 800 million dollars. There are 6 million hectares under temporary occupation, which will also require inspection after the liberation.

Mine clearance does not guarantee that farmers will be able to return to work on these lands. The surface still needs to be leveled and recultivated, i.e., soil fertility needs to be restored. In June, the Kyiv School of Economics estimated the total cost of such work at $40 million.

The Kharkiv holding Agrotrade (cultivates 70.5 thousand hectares, the owner is the commander of the Khartia (Charter) volunteer unit Vsevolod Kozhemyako) said that recultivation of a hectare of land after demining costs an average of 100 dollars.

Livestock production has also suffered because of the war. The lack of safe land for growing fodder is forcing farmers to reduce their livestock and lay off workers. The industry will take years to recover.

It is more difficult to deal with mines in the regions that have been under Russian occupation for more than six months. For example, in Kherson, the Russian army mined critical infrastructure, communications and even civilian buildings.

Ukrainian sappers have to check every meter of liberated land before it becomes usable. Until then, businesses will not be able to operate on it.

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It could take decades to fully demine Ukraine. Albania, after the Yugoslav wars, was able to demine its territory only ten years later. This is despite the fact that 15,000 square kilometers were considered dangerous in this country, which is ten times less than in Ukraine today.

Another example is Croatia. In the 1990s, 13,000 square kilometers were considered mined there. The country still cannot completely clear its land of explosives.

Shortage of sappers

Demining for civilians is divided into two types: operational and humanitarian.

Operational demining is the clearing of areas where explosives have been found by sappers of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, the National Guard, or the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Such demining is suitable for emergency cases.

Humanitarian demining is the survey of all potentially dangerous areas according to international standards, defusing explosive items and quality control.

This is a complex, time-consuming and expensive process but it is the only way to guarantee the safety of landowners.

In Ukraine, there are eight operator organizations performing humanitarian demining. Over the past year, many specialized organizations have emerged that want to work in Ukraine but they have to undergo a complex certification procedure. This slows down the entry of new operators into the market.

According to the head of one of Ukroboronprom’s (an association of multi-product enterprises (conglomerate or concern) in various sectors of the defense industry of Ukraine) enterprises, certification takes 6-12 months. During this time, operators collect documents, train deminers, buy equipment, and work out the rules of operation. The long certification process is only the beginning of the difficulties, as humanitarian demining is expensive.

Ukrainian Deminers Association says that demining a square meter of land can cost $3-4. No farmer is able to finance such work.

“One farmer said: even if we sow this land with marijuana, we will not recoup such demining costs in a few years,” said Timur Pistriuha, the head of the Ukrainian Deminers Association.

According to Ruslan Berehula, head of the Department of Environmental Safety and Mine Action of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, Ukraine has not yet allocated money for humanitarian demining, so it is being carried out at the expense of foreign donors.

The cost of complete humanitarian demining of Ukraine is difficult to calculate. The media write about $400-900 billion. However, this is how much humanitarian demining would cost if all the potentially dangerous 139,000 square kilometers were covered with mines.

In reality, this figure is much lower. The cost of demining is determined after a non-technical survey, and not all Ukrainian fields are densely covered with mines. Some land may not require the work of sappers.

In summer 2022, the Military Feodal project, which aggregates information for humanitarian demining, gave a more restrained estimate of about $5 billion. Now this amount is higher.

Meanwhile, the amount of foreign aid to Ukrainian operators in 2022 was measured in millions. This is not enough to expand the number of sappers, purchase equipment and speed up the process.

As a result, a queue formed for free demining. Not all farmers can apply for it because operators do not work in a 20-30 kilometer zone from the front line.

In addition, the fields for carrying out work are not chosen according to the principle of “who submitted an application sooner”, but according to priority. Demimimg Solutions said that priorities are determined based on the instructions of the National Mine Action Standards and suggestions from local authorities.

Unable to wait months for their turn, farmers look for sappers themselves.

In the spring of 2022, the Agrotrade holding, which owns land in the Chernihiv region liberated in April, faced a problem: unexploded shells and mines were lying on the sown fields. They could go deep into the ground and be overgrown with rapeseed by summer. Then the fields would become unusable for years.

“The military was standing next to our fields and we asked them to clear the roads of mines. Then we launched our sprayer drones and used them to search for unexploded devices. The military blew it all up, and we cleaned it up,” says Olena Vorona, the Chief Operating Officer of Agrotrade Group.

The company repaid the help with military pickup trucks and fuel. As a result, the demining of 10,000 hectares cost the company about $60,000. According to Vorona, other farmers did the same.

The holding assures that there were no accidents after such demining.

The black market of sappers

Not everyone is so lucky. In the liberated regions, there are cases when tractors are blown up in the field after being “demined” by uncertified sappers.

“A man from the Kyiv region had a harvester blown up. He calls us and complains that someone demined his field, but he ran into a mine anyway,” representatives of the Military Feudal project said.

The need for quick demining has led to the flourishing of the black market of deminers. Players on the market do not keep you waiting, but they are not responsible for quality. Farmers are willing to take risks to save their businesses and jobs.

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According to one agricultural company, the cost of surveying a field by illegal sappers on the black market is about UAH 5,000 per hectare, and demining costs USD 1-3,000 per hectare, depending on the contamination.

Experts are skeptical about “black sappers”. “If a farmer has used the services of black sappers and wants to undergo compliance (counterparty verification ) or lease land, he will not be able to confirm that the land is safe,” warns Military Feodal.

The market is being formed

A legal demining market is beginning to take shape in Ukraine. Certified humanitarian demining companies are emerging. One of them is a subsidiary of Ukroboronprom.

According to Economicha Pravda (Economic truth, the Ukrainian news website) the cost of a certified survey and demining of a hectare of land can vary greatly. It all depends on the number of mines, terrain and security on the territory.

The sappers of the state concern will work almost at cost. However, even without extra charges, not all farmers are able to pay for proper humanitarian demining services.

At the Minefield Movement conference, entrepreneurs suggested that these costs be shared with the state. Otherwise, farmers will look for alternative ways to demine their land.

What’s next

2022 was a tough year for the humanitarian demining industry. The front line was constantly changing, there was a lack of money, and some operators were undergoing certification. Now the process is accelerating.

If before the full-scale war, there were four certified operators of anti-mine activity in the country, now there are ten of them, of which two only inform the population. A number of others are undergoing certification.

Farmers themselves are also involved in humanitarian demining. Nibulon is consulting to obtain the status of a demining operator and is attracting investments to buy equipment.

The number of specialists in the field is growing. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine said that a year ago they had 600 sappers, and now they have 1,000. The agency plans to increase its staff to 1,500.

The number of certified operators is also expanding. A year ago, Demining Solutions had 10 sappers, and now there are 50. Ukroboronprom’s subsidiary has 30 sappers, and by the end of the year, there may be 100.

The available deminers are not enough to survey all the problem areas, but international support for Ukraine has increased over the past year, so the process may accelerate.

In particular, the US government has called demining of Ukraine the biggest challenge since World War II and has allocated $91.5 million for it. Canada gave $11 million, the European Union – 25 million euros. The money will be used to purchase equipment, train demining teams, and provide grants for certified operators.

The problems of farmers will be gradually resolved. Demining Solutions says that the National Mine Action Standards have prioritized the demining of agricultural land for 2023.

Farmers should apply to the Military Feodal project website, from which the information will go to the relevant authorities. Operators will use this data to plan their work.

The Association of Deminers believes that the complete demining of Ukraine may take decades. However, the experience of other countries, including Croatia, and new technologies can speed up the process.

Originally posted by Economichna Pravda, translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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