From 1963-1974 during the Second Indochina War, Laos People's Democratic Republic (PDR) suffered heavy aerial bombardment in an attempt by the US Air Force to block the flow of North Vietnamese arms and troops through Laotian territory, earning it the dubious distinction of “most bombed country” per capita in the world.
Although Laos PDR was one of the first signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and is committed to removing the cluster munition threat, UXO clearance has been slow.
There is no national baseline survey but HALO estimates that approximately 1000km sq to 2000km sq are contaminated by cluster munitions. With reference to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine action in Laos PDR Annual Report, it is estimated that there have been more than 25,000 victims of UXO since the war ended in 1973.
More than 40 years after the conflict, UXO contamination continues to affect rural communities in Laos, with the most widespread being “cluster bombs”, white phosphorous rockets and large aircraft bombs.
Villagers in Savannakhet Province, one of the most affected areas, are almost entirely dependent on rice cultivation but contamination across their paddy fields makes them understandably reluctant to cultivate their land. This hampers their ability to grow food and build a surplus, the first step in moving away from subsistence farming and the foundation of grass roots development.
In 2012, with funding from the US government, HALO established a programme of survey and clearance in Eastern Savannakhet Province, the most UXO impacted and impoverished region. We have been working with government departments and NGO development partners including World Vision, Welthungerhilfe and GIZ to improve human security and eradicate poverty. Our staff conduct surveys to identify and map UXO contamination. They then carry out clearance, removing the threat from areas containing cluster munitions.
HALO has pioneered an innovative evidence-based survey methodology in Laos, a process that begins with meetings and interviews with local villagers, then uses technical survey approaches to accurately delineate the extent of UXO contamination, ensuring any clearance is appropriately targeted. We also use an impact prioritisation system which, when combined with accurate survey, ensures clearance is delivered to areas of the greatest need and impact.
So far, over 2,000,000m2 of land has been cleared, with over 18,000 explosive devices destroyed, improving the lives of over 7,000 local people.
With generous funding from the UK Department for International Development and the US Department of State (PM/WRA) HALO has achieved remarkable results but there is still a lot to be done. An essential next step is a credible national baseline survey, to enable accurate predictions of the extent of contamination and the resources required to clear the land. We are in discussion with other clearance operators and the National Authorities in Laos, and hope to collaborate on this in 2016/17.