The U.S. has spent over $100 million clearing unexploded cluster munitions from Laos, and another $90 million is on its way.
After becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, Barack Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. will invest $90 million into finding and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO) over the next three years.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. conducted bombing raids along the Vietnam-Laos border. Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped over the course of a decade — 580,000 bombing raids were carried out against targets in Laos.
Laos is regarded as the world’s most-heavily bombed country per capita.
More than 30 percent of the bombs dropped in Laos were duds that malfunctioned and failed to detonate on impact. Current estimates place the number of unexploded bombs lying around Laos in the tens of millions.
Around 25,000 people have been killed or injured in UXO-linked accidents in the country. Additionally, as Laos is still a developing country, agriculture is key; however, many Laotians are hesitant to expand their farms, limiting domestic growth.
“The percentage of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions still in the ground at the end of the war that have been cleared by now is quite low … certainly under 5 percent,” Titus Peachey, Advisory Board chair for Legacies of War, an advocacy group dedicated to raising awareness about the situation in Laos, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Over the last few decades, work has been slow and funding has been limited. It wasn’t until 2010 that Congress raised its aid contribution to Laos to $5 million. “It took quite a long time to get operations running with trained and experienced de-miners working efficiently,” said Peachey.
UXO clearance is now occurring at an accelerated pace. After years of investment in Laos, the country now has a lot of experienced UXO removal technicians. Furthermore, U.S. funding for UXO clearance projects and assistance in Laos is up to around $20 million, and more money is coming down the line.
“A newly-implemented survey method in the past year has helped operators concentrate on the most contaminated land, meaning that the number of pieces of unexploded ordnance cleared per hectare has tripled,” explained Peachey.
Legacies of War praised Obama’s commitment to UXO clearance as a big success. “Legacy of War is thrilled by the President’s announcement … but the President’s announcement of unprecedented levels of support for the UXO sector in Laos does not signal the end of our work. Clearance teams are not yet working in all areas of the country and victim assistance, particularly at the district and village level, is still at a very basic level,” said Legacies of War Executive Director Channapha Khamvongsa in a statement.
“We view the $90 million not as the amount needed to complete the task, but as a signal that the commitment to complete the task has been made. No one will ever declare that they have found the last bomb in Laos. We hope, however, that we can get the casualty rate down to 0 over a period of years,” said Peachey.
So far, the U.S. government has managed to help bring the number of annual UXO-related casualties down from 300 to 50.
A U.S. Department of State official informed TheDCNF that the proposed $90 million will pass through the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (WRA) and be distributed for a three-tiered project including comprehensive surveying, UXO clearance and victim assistance.
Funds will be channeled into organizations working on the ground in Laos. These include: Catholic Relief Services, The HALO Trust, Health Leadership International, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), National Protected Area (NPA) Network, Spirit of Soccer, Sterling Global, and World Education, Inc.
A significant portion of the funding will be invested in comprehensive survey work. The completion of a detailed survey will allow Laos to mark off Confirmed Hazardous Areas and then proceed with clearance operations.
“This generous and urgently needed funding will allow HALO and other humanitarian clearance organizations to get to grips with the problem. It is a momentous step in Lao’s journey towards freedom from the deadly debris of war,” explained HALO Trust CEO James Cowan, speaking of Obama’s $90 million commitment.
Working with locals, HALO has cleared over 3,000,000 square meters of land over the past four years. HALO has helped over 8,000 people, working primarily in the highly-contaminated Savannakhet Province.
Victim assistance is carried out through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation under the Lao Ministry of Health, according to the U.S. State Department. USAID’s Leahy War Victims Fund supports the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise, which has helped around 4,500 people, including 1,500 children.
Legacies of War asserts that because clearance operations are now progressing smoothly, the greatest needs are those associated with victim assistance.
“We think more funding is also needed for providing services to victims, especially in some of the less obvious areas like trauma care, life skills training, and home rehabilitation,” Peachey told TheDCNF. “This is in addition to establishing a more detailed database of victims to track their needs and the services being provided.”
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