By Chris Wardle, Provincial Program Coordinator – CARE International in Laos PDR
I have been working in Sekong Province in Southern Laos for over two years on programs that aim to improve the lives of families by linking the development of livelihood opportunities to the clearance of unexploded ordanance (UXO) from contaminated land.
During the Second Indochina War (1964 – 1973), over two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, resulting in the death or injury of over 50,000 people from 1964-2008. I have often tried to imagine what two million tons of bombs look like in an attempt to understand this staggering number. If a large car weighs 1.5 to 2 tons, then the number of bombs dropped on Laos was equivalent to more than one million large cars.
It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of the bombs dropped did not detonate. This includes more than 270 million cluster munitions, commonly known as bombies, of which around 80 million did not explode on impact and remain live today, even though they were dropped over 40 years ago. Commonly, the trigger or timing mechanism is stuck and disturbing or moving a UXO could trigger it to explode.
As a result, many of the rural communities in Sekong Province where CARE works still face the daily risk of UXOs. The Lao Government says UXO contamination still affects more than 25 per cent of Lao villages. UXO contamination is a cause of poverty and is a significant obstacle to the country’s sustainable development, preventing people from using land and denying access to basic services.
Some UXOs will be on the surface, but the majority lurk under the ground, which means that any agricultural use of land is a risk. Before implementing activities with communities such as fishponds, coffee gardens or rice paddy field expansion, CARE seeks UXO risk assessments and clearance support from clearance agencies.
CARE also provides Mine Risk Education in communities, specifically targeting high risk groups such as farmers, scrap metal collectors and children. Living with UXOs for so long means people can become complacent or desensitised to the problem and take risks. In other cases, the need for food is simply too great, forcing people to risk farming contaminated land.
CARE was working in Tangbrong village last month, responding to a rotovirus outbreak, and while there I was reminded of how young the population is. Of the 1,183 people 747 (63 per cent) are under 18 years old. It’s worrying to think that although adults may be used to living with and understand the UXO risk, children are growing up with the same hidden dangers, but without the same level of awareness that previous generations had.
As village populations grow, more land is likely to be cultivated, bringing with it all the risks of farming in areas with UXO contamination. It is therefore important to continue with the mine awareness activities and the UXO clearance to support the new generation who will live with this on-going risk.
UXOs can be cleared, but it takes time and money. The communities in these contaminated areas have a right to live without the fear of UXOs. Continued support is necessary to minimise the UXO risk and at the same time provide people with opportunities to work their way out of poverty.