As mobile telecoms operators extend their rollout into conflict and post-conflict areas, they will come up against a formidable challenge – navigating the risk of landmines.
Tower companies employed by Telenor, Ooredoo and Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) will become the first private firms to build such infrastructure in areas fought over in some of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
Myanmar is anecdotally one of the three most dangerous countries in the world in terms of casualties from landmines, with up to 500 people injured each year, yet no central database on minefields exists. The government has said that no demining or mapping will begin until an elusive national ceasefire agreement is signed.
Until then, telecoms companies are unable to know for sure in advance if there are mines or unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the areas they need to build towers, as they race to broaden coverage in line with government targets.
Construction staff will be at risk from explosive hazards without accurate minefield survey, marking and clearance where necessary, said Henry Leach, Yangon representative for Scotland-based demining group HALO Trust. Humanitarian mine clearance organisations are well equipped to help with this, he said.
“HALO has assisted with major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Georgia providing technical advice on explosive hazards as well as survey and clearance capacities to provide a safe working environment,” he said.
None of Myanmar’s three operators has yet made a public statement on how they plan to deal with the risk of expanding coverage into areas known to be mined.
Telenor’s CEO Petter Furberg told The Myanmar Times the Norwegian company will rely on information from the government, ethnic groups and local communities, and at this stage has no plans to work with demining groups.
“[We will engage] just these groups for now, which we believe are most critical and help us deal with the most immediate risks. Strategies may possibly change in future, but that is not something we can address now,” he said.
He pointed out that mobile networks are rolled out close to roads, villages and towns. “As long as people are living [and] able to travel, it’s also possible to find safe areas to build towers.”
Mine and UXO experts agree that local knowledge can be very useful, but that relying on verbal assurance alone may be irresponsible, particularly as mines continue to be laid.
Experience in other countries shows that villagers – not for nefarious but for practical reasons – may offer up sites for towers that cannot be used for other purposes such as building a home or a farm, because of the existence of landmines.
Military positions are very likely to be mined, said one Myanmar representative of a demining group. “These are often on high ground – the same strategic points that the telecoms companies want to put their towers.”
Telecoms companies will need to be careful with negotiations or they could find that fresh mines are being laid to derail the projects, he added.
High-voltage electric towers have been sabotaged in the past, as have bridges and other infrastructure, said Bjarne Ussing, program manager for Myanmar and Thailand at DCA Humanitarian Mine Action.
“A telecoms company can rightfully be in doubt about whether similar sabotage could happen against their telecommunication tower,” he said, noting that telecoms should pose less of a conflict risk, as people are “generally happy to get a phone connection”.
Qatar operator Ooredoo also relies on local knowledge. “We know as we get to some parts of the country there are mines, and they are not necessarily properly chartered,” said former CEO Ross Cormack. “It’s about working to maximise the opportunity for local knowledge to avoid getting into some of those areas.”
Ooredoo has no plans to work with demining organisations, said Mr Cormack, but would consider doing so once the rollout into border areas begins.
While no accurate maps exist, the UN’s Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU) has a rough map, based on accidents. Most are in Southeast Myanmar in Kayin State, Kayah State, Mon State, eastern Bago Region and Tanintharyi Region. Newer minefields have also been planted in northern Shan State and Kachin State.
Telecoms risk experts say they fear landmines won’t become a priority until there is a serious incident. “This is not a good approach – the sector has a responsibility to tackle the issue in a proactive way,” said one consultant for a Myanmar towers company.
In other countries, clearance has been paid for by telecoms operators, he said. “There’s a wealth of experience in the industry on this issue.”
While maps cannot provide complete certainty they can significantly help to reduce the loss of life and serious injury, he added. “If the government requires [mobile] coverage in areas where there’s a potential prevalence of mines and UXO, the responsibility ultimately lies somewhere between the operator and the government.”
This is chance to apply pressure, said the representative of one demining group. “The big telecoms companies represent huge revenues to the government. If we can get them to jump up and down on our behalf then we may be able to push through registration more quickly.”
Matthieu Rupied, chief officer for sourcing and supply chain at Apollo Towers Myanmar said he is working on a risk assessment to better understand the issue. Apollo, which builds towers for Telenor, has also met with HALO Trust and gathered data from other demining organisations.
“We have general data at township level, with the list of townships that are believed to be at highest risk.” Sites are chosen at the request of the operator, he said, which means the issue needs to be addressed collectively – working with demining groups could be a solution in a very few high-risk cases.
Telecoms companies could begin by sharing information with other infrastructure and demining companies, said experts. Ideally the data would be stored in a national mine action centre but, despite efforts since 2012, Myanmar does not yet have one.
When it comes to clearance, it becomes more complicated, as some armed groups say they are not yet ready for demining. Also, if clearance begins without a peace agreement in place, it will be hard to protect the land rights of communities and individuals, according to non-profit group Displacement Solutions.
While agreements are negotiated, the mobile roll out across Myanmar continues at a record pace. Tower site hunters are racing to find suitable locations, with around 250 new towers erected each month. Conflict and post-conflict areas must all be covered under the terms of the licence agreements.
Operators must meet these lofty government targets – fast – and may be tempted to cut corners, said the Yangon-based towers consultant.
“They are taking a chance. They have a bond with the government and a lot to lose financially, and for commercial reasons they want to roll out as quickly as possible,” he said.
“We need to look at the trade-offs the industry is willing to make in the name of mobile coverage. It’s really about where they want to spend money and where they don’t.”