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A member of the SESU walks past an inflated tent provided as humanitarian aid to perform long-term field missions, in Vyshneve, Ukraine, on May 6.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

A World Health Organization project funded by Canada that was supposed to support Ukraine’s COVID-19 response has been repurposed to help the country’s emergency services perform a variety of war-related duties, including clearing mines.

Canada contributed funding to help the WHO acquire three large tents for its operations in Ukraine earlier this year. The inflatable tents, which measure 60 square metres, were originally intended to serve as places to perform medical screening and as vaccination sites.

But with the war approaching its third month, the WHO has turned them over to the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU). They are now being used to help with civilian evacuations, humanitarian aid distribution and as portable medical centres for demining crews.

The tents are easy to transport and assemble – they take about 10 minutes to inflate – which means they can be used almost anywhere. That’s an important advantage for the country’s vast mine clearance operation.

Since the war began, SESU’s mine disposal squads have deactivated more than 54,000 mines and 2,000 unexploded missiles, according to figures from the service. And that’s just the start: experts say many more mines will be uncovered as the fighting continues and it could take decades to clear the country of unexploded devices.

“When our emergency crews perform missions, we need this equipment,” said Volodymyr Zapolochny, an SESU crew member. “It’s very necessary for us.”

Each tent costs about US$11,000 and comes with two tables, six chairs, several lamps, power outlets and a heater. The WHO has also supplied generators.

Dmytro Osin, a biomedical engineer with the WHO in Ukraine, said the relationship with SESU has been unique for the United Nations organization. “When the war started, they were very happy to get the tents,” he said. “Demining is the most crucial use for all three tents.”

Mr. Osin said the tents were handed over in the past couple of weeks and have already been effective. Last week emergency crews were putting out a fire in a forest north of Kyiv when they came across some mines. They set up one of the tents because “they needed some place for medical people to stay and be ready to go,” he said. “I was speaking with these people and they said, ‘Please forward thanks to all the people who are involved.’”

All the tents were made by a Ukrainian company, Tent-M, which is located outside Kyiv. When the war started, the company’s operations came under fire, but the staff still managed to finish the tents. “The Russian army came close to the suburbs. They were shooting, and missiles were coming in this area,” Mr. Osin said. The workers fled but “gradually they came back to their production. Now they say that they can provide 10 tents a month.”

He said the WHO is considering ordering more tents from Tent-M for SESU. However, the agency will have to seek alternative funding, he added, because Canada’s grant has been exhausted.

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