Millions of unexploded bombs hamper Laos development

More than 40 years after the end of the United States military intervention in Southeast Asia, millions of unexploded bombs and other projectiles remain hidden in dense jungles, submerged in river banks, and buried in fertile soil
Millions of unexploded bombs hamper Laos development
A courtyard is used as a deposit of bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force planes during the Vietnam War in Xieng Khouang, Laos - Photo: Jorge Silva/REUTERS
28/04/2018
17:30
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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More than 40 years after the end of the United States military intervention in Southeast Asia, millions of unexploded bombs and other projectiles, launched almost exclusively by warplanes, remain hidden in dense jungles, submerged in river banks, and buried in fertile soil, hampering development in Laos, one of the poorest countries in the region.

The remote, mountainous, and landlocked territory of Laos was critical during the Vietnam War. In 1963, at the start of the U.S. involvement, the North Vietnamese army began smuggling arms and equipment to the Viet Cong guerrilla in South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route carved through the forests of southeastern Laos.

The U.S. reaction in December 1964 was an aerial offensive which became the most extensive bombing campaign in history, and over the next nine years, Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita, surpassing Japan and Germany in the Second World War, and Vietnam itself.

This effort was kept secret and the raids were conducted without authorization of Congress and without the knowledge of the American people until the publication of the “Pentagon papers” in 1971, detailing the bombing of nearby Cambodia.

In total, around 30,000 people were killed or injured in Laos alone; since 1974, one year before the end of the war, over 20,000 civilians have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind.

United States aircraft flew more than 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance, or nearly one ton for every person in the Laotian population at the time.

Cluster bombs, each containing hundreds of smaller bomblets or submunitions of various types (anti-personnel, incendiary, etc.), which are designed to break apart in mid-air and disperse over a wide area to inflict maximum damage, were the most used weapon.

Around 260 million bomblets were dropped, yet 80 million failed to detonate and now litter the countryside in 14 of 17 Laos’ provinces, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

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A woman poses at an entrance of her house next to bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force planes during the Vietnam War, in the village of Ban Napia in Xieng Khouang province, Laos - Photo: Jorge Silva/REUTERS

Farmers and children

Nowadays, most accidents are caused by direct impact of UXO which can occur during agricultural labor or when children mistakenly play with submunitions.

In the last years, clearance efforts have improved. In 1996, the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme was established in a joint effort with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and multiple international non-governmental and governmental organizations to coordinate UXO clearance.

From 2008 to 2017, some 920 people were injured or killed in almost 600 UXO-related accidents, with the number of fatalities recorded at 244.

In this period there was a substantial decrease in the annual casualty figures, from over 300 in 2008 to 41 in 2017.

The last figure almost reaches the target of 40, set in the National Strategic Plan for the UXO Sector.

Also last year, a total of 108,586 UXO items were removed, including 84,977 bomblets on 3,882 hectares of land that are now open to two areas crucial to Laos’ development: agricultural production and the provision of basic infrastructure.

Around three million people have attended risk education classes; nevertheless, despite the plans to eradicate UXO accidents by 2030, at least USD$32 million for surveys and clearance are needed as there is currently a funding shortage, said on March 31 the local daily Vientiane Times quoting the National Regulatory Authority.

In 2017, it sourced more than USD$26.8 million through the Lao government and NGOs, which was used for several clearance projects.

Washington provided on January 15 vehicles, 150 detectors, and other field equipment worth USD$1.25 million, as part of a three-year USD$ 90 million funding package announced by then-President Barack Obama in his 2016 landmark visit. “I believe the US has a moral obligation to help Laos heal”, he said.

However, around 98% of contaminated areas remains littered with UXO, 42 of the 46 poorest districts are located on these rural zones, severely limiting the country’s agricultural potential and leaving 18.5% of the total population (seven million) malnourished.

On August 2017, Kaarina Immonen, UNDP Resident Representative to Lao People’s Democratic Republic, stressed during a meeting with the UXO Sector Working Group in Vientiane: “Mine action and UXO mitigation is not only needed from a humanitarian angle, it is also enabling human development.

Removing the risk will support the efforts of the government of Lao PDR in implementing other Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 1 on ending poverty, Goal 8 on decent work, and Goal 10 on reducing inequalities, as well as having a positive influence on numerous others”.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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