Climate change adds a new dimension to Laos’ UXO challenges

Deminer Mr. Dasone Sitthipone FSD demining staff working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, he is carefully excavating soil from a location where a metal object has been located, at Taoun Village, Laman District, near Sekong, Lao PDR, 2009. Photo: Jim Holmes

Unpredictable weather patterns pose new UXO threats to Laotians. To meet these threats, international governments will have to make changes in the current aid distribution model.

By Oliver Ward

Dangerous! Dangerous! Dangerous!

Unexploded ordnance (UXO), there are many types

They can be where you least suspect

If you find UXO, move away quickly!

They are not conventional words for a children’s song, but these are the lyrics to a song young Laotians are taught in the hope that it may, one day, save their life.

Laos has been the most bombed country per capita in human history. The scars of the Second Indochina War, in which more than two million tons of ordnance rained down on the nation, still dominate the leafy Laotian landscape.

The country continues to pay the human cost of the war more than four decades after its end. Of the masses of ordnance dropped on Laos, around a third failed to detonate on impact, leaving the Laotian countryside littered with unexploded bombs. Since the war’s end, almost 20,000 Laotians have been killed or injured by UXO across the country, with children making up around 40% of the casualties.

An unexploded cluster sub-munition or ‘bombie’.
Photo: Damien Farrell

Children are particularly vulnerable to injury as unexploded cluster bombs look similar in size and shape to a tennis ball. When they are unearthed, children often play with them, with fatal consequences.

Unpredictable climate patterns are complicating removal efforts

The Laotian government, in cooperation with international allies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), removed and safely disposed of around 20 million unexploded bombs between 1973 and 2018. This has helped bring UXO casualty rates down. However, UXO groups estimate there could be as many as 80 million left to clear.

Climate change and unpredictable weather patterns are complicating efforts to clear up the Laotian countryside. Cluster bombs often lurk in the topsoil, sitting less than 25cm below the surface. These become dislodged in flash floods, which can carry them to locations previously surveyed and deemed cleared, putting civilians in grave danger.

Laos is at the forefront of the fight against climate change

Over the last decade, natural disasters in Laos have become more common, with floods, cyclones, droughts and storms ravaging the nation. “In the past, we would get floods perhaps once every three years,” said Link Vorvong Xay, a farmer. Now, it is common to see flooding multiple times in a single year.

“The [water level] rises come at different times of the year and more quickly than they used to. In the past, it always started raining in June and ended in October. Now the rains start in August,” she added.

A controlled detonation of cluster bombs.
Photo: Bart Verweij/AusAID

From 1951 to 2012, rainfall increased by 1.6mm per decade in Laos, according to a UN and World Bank report. As global temperatures rise, this is set to increase. “Basic physics tells us that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour and this leads to larger precipitation events,” Donald J. Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois told Mongabay.

International governments need to rethink the way they provide UXO aid to Laos

The existing model international allies use to provide aid is ill-equipped to meet the unique challenges posed to UXO clearance by climate change. Currently, many nations provide UXO assistance in the form of equipment or earmarked funding. This funding is set aside for specifically allocated programs, such as surveying a certain area or providing prosthetics and rehabilitation for victims.

Aid proposal processes are lengthy and time-consuming and do not allow for an agile response in the event of an emergency. Very few donors provide funds for the Laotian government to assign wherever it sees fit. This rigid model means that the Laotian government has very limited funds at its disposal to rapidly respond to UXO crises that emerge as a result of natural disasters.

“Funds that are not allocated for specific activity allow UNDP [United Nations Development Program] to engage with the National Regulatory Authority for UXO and Mine Action and the national clearance operator UXO Lao without delay, thus helping communities directly and supporting authorities who are assisting UXO victims and vulnerable people in risk areas,” said Ricarda Rieger, the Laos resident representative of the UNDP.

Currently, only the Republic of Ireland and the Grand Dutchy of Luxemburg provide unearmarked funding to the Laotian government. In 2018, Australia provided funding for UXO surveying and clearance in Attapeu province following heavy flooding. However, the funds were not unearmarked.

Until a shift in aid models can take place, education programs will play a key role in keeping villagers safe. Songs like the one taught to students by HALO Trust will remain a part of classrooms for the foreseeable future as the next generation of Laotians continue to grapple with the horrors inflicted on the last.