UXO casualties down but challenges remain

VIENTIANE, 6 July 2011 (IRIN) - The number of people involved in unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents in Laos, the world's most cluster-bombed country, has dropped from an average of 300 a year to 117 in the past two years, according to government statistics.

However, the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action (NRA) estimates more than 200,000 hectares of prime agricultural land still have to be cleared.

From 1964 to 1973, US aircraft dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos, including 277 million cluster sub-munitions, 30 percent of which failed to detonate, according to the NRA.

The situation today is that all 17 provinces of the country and approximately 25 percent of villages suffer from various degrees of UXO contamination, the NRA reports.

Yet despite the drop in casualties, 49-year-old farmer Vongphone still feels nervous every time he steps into his rice fields, his only source of livelihood. He lost his left hand five years ago when he set off a cluster bomb while farming.

"There is still a lot of UXO contamination on the farmland and people are afraid. It's hard for me to work with only one hand. I can't even support myself and the family is poorer," he told IRIN.

The government's new 10-year plan was presented at the Geneva inter-sessional meeting for the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which bans the use, stockpiling and production of cluster munitions, on 27 June.

It focused on clearing land in the 42 poorest districts affected - mostly along the old Ho Chi Minh trail running from the north to the south along the Vietnamese border.

The government has prioritized about 22,000 hectares to be cleared in the next 16 years.

"We need to give people more access to land and improve public utilities and infrastructure such as rural roads. The communication between villages and districts is missing," said Maligna Saignavongs, a senior government adviser to the NRA.

UXO Lao, the national clearance operator, supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), has cleared about 24,000ha since starting operations in 1996.

In Xieng Khouang Province, northern Lao, 31-year-old Khamtoun and her team are clearing land for a new village development project. In just two weeks, 108 unexploded cluster bombs have already been found.
"I want to clear all the land so people will be safe from the bombs and then people can earn their livelihoods safely," Khamtoun told IRIN.

Meanwhile, the long-term impact on communities is severe.

Vongphone and his wife Bounmee had to take three of their children out of school after his accident. "We didn't have enough money to support them. Even the roof of our house was broken and I had to ask for support from the neighbour to help fix it," said Bounmee.

The 2008 CCM entered into force in August 2010. The government of Laos hosted the First Meeting of States Parties in November 2010, which resulted in the adoption of the Vientiane Declaration and Action Plan.

Under Article 6 of the Convention, all states in a position to do so are obliged to provide assistance to those affected. This is critical for Laos if it is to scale up its work in the UXO sector.

Saleumxay Kommasith from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told IRIN he hoped the Vientiane Action Plan would ultimately result in more international funding.

In 2010, the UN said about US$30 million a year was required for the UXO sector.

In the treaty's inaugural year, cluster munitions have been used by non-signatory states, including Thailand and Libya, according to Human Rights Watch.


Theme (s): Conflict, Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]