40 Years On, Laos Still Covered with Unexploded Ordinance

With less than 1 percent of the unexploded ordinance in Laos removed more than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the United States, which dropped it on the poverty-stricken country, is set to boost funding to remove it.

Deaths and injuries from unexploded ordinance, or UXO, have decreased dramatically over the past few years as the US has scaled up funding for clearance. Casualties fell from 302 in 2008 to 40 in 2015, according to the Laotian government’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action. Between January and March this year, there were just two recorded incidents.

From 2010, the US has steadily increased the amount it has spent on UXO programs from $5 million to $15 million. During a January visit to the Laotian capital, Vientiane, US Secretary of State John Kerry said his government was discussing whether to contribute more funding. Now, the US embassy has told IRIN that President Barack Obama’s administration has approved the decision.

“We expect that President Obama will further increase that funding when he comes here later this year,” said Lucija Straley, an embassy spokeswoman.

The US Congress has committed $19.5 million in the current budget, so any increase announced by Obama this September would be above and beyond this figure.

"In addition, the increase will assist in implementing a national survey of UXO contamination, which does not yet exist and is a critical gap in current UXO efforts," said Straley.

Obama will become the first sitting US president in history to visit Laos when he attends a summit of Southeast Asian leaders this September.

Making up for the past

Laos remains contaminated with UXO from heavy US bombing during its war in neighboring Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the US military waged a “secret war” without informing Congress, which saw more than two million tonnes of bombs dropped on Laos. Around one third of the munitions failed to explode on impact. Almost 30,000 people have been killed and 21,048 injured since the bombing ended, according to Laos government data.

The advocacy group Legacies of War says the US spent the same amount in three days of bombing – around $51 million in today’s money – as it has on 16 years of cleanup efforts. The US contributed an average of only $3.2 million a year for clearance between 1995 and 2013.

The situation improved under the Obama administration, which has steadily increased funding since Congress mandated a minimum of $5 million per year in 2010. Some of that has gone to the Mines Advisory Group and regional director Greg Crowther said he expects the US contribution to rise to $25 million annually. Straley, from the US embassy in Vientiane, said the exact increase Obama is set to announce has not yet been confirmed.

Simon Rea, MAG’s country director, welcomed the imminent injection of US funds, saying that past commitments had played a key role in the casualty drop alongside a fall in the price of scrap metal, which villagers have often scavenged from UXO. He added that the new US funding could be especially beneficial if it contributes to a national UXO survey, which will lay a firm foundation for future clearance efforts by mapping out contaminated areas.

“Long-term, it will have major implications,” Rea said. “We will then be able to provide timelines and know what the total cost will be to move towards a cluster munitions-free, impact-free country.”

Needless to say, there is a long way to go before Laos is free from the scourge of UXO. Channapha Khamvongsa, the organization’s executive director, told IRIN that the US should “make a long-term, sustained commitment to the people of Laos,” at least doubling its current funding over the next decade.

This is reprinted from IRIN (http://www.irinnews.org), an independent news organization that reports on humanitarian crises across the globe.