The Things We Left Behind: Fifty Years Later, American Cluster Bombs Continue to Kill in Laos

by Alexis Collatos | August 5th, 2010 | |Subscribe

One of the most striking statistics from the U.S. war in Vietnam doesn’t concern Vietnam at all, but its neighbor, Laos.  Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos.  This works out to the equivalent of one B-52 load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. The sheer tonnage of explosives dropped on Laos makes the tiny, land-locked nation the most heavily-bombed country in history, with half a ton of bombs dropped for every inhabitant.

This dubious distinction carries a terrible legacy. According to U.S. estimates, approximately 30% of ordnance dropped over Laos failed to detonate upon impact. This unexploded ordnance, or UXO, remains scattered and buried throughout an area that covers one third of the country. In the past five decades over 50,000 Laotians – a fifth of them children – have been killed or maimed by American UXO. Currently, around 300 Laotians needlessly die every year from accidents involving UXO. Particularly deadly have been cluster bombs, which consist of sub-munitions that scatter over a wide area and are notorious for causing indiscriminate civilian casualties. Experts estimate that of the 260 million cluster bombs, or “bomblets” American forces dropped on Laos, 80 million remain unexploded.

This situation constitutes a severe humanitarian issue for which the U.S. is ultimately responsible. Due to the ubiquity of UXO, difficult economic conditions, and lack of education, reducing the damage by UXO has proved a formidable task for the Lao government. It is almost impossible for Laotians to avoid living and working in areas contaminated by UXO, making de-mining the only viable option for addressing the problem. Laos’s economy is heavily dependent on farming: 80% of the population is involved in agriculture, which makes up 30% of the national GDP. Unfortunately, UXO has rendered 37% of agricultural land unsafe for farming. Farmers who ignore or are unaware of UXO contamination are injured or killed by UXO that has sunk underground over time and is then detonated by digging.

In addition to farmers accidentally uncovering UXO, injuries and fatalities are caused when people actively seek out UXO for scrap metal.  Laos is an extremely poor country, ranking 133rd on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. The scrap metal of UXO and bomb shells are often seen as a valuable addition to low-income farmers, prompting many people to ignore the risks of UXO in favor of meager fiscal benefits.

Ironically, the UXO that some Laotians collect to relieve their personal poverty is also partially responsible for the poverty of the entire country. Besides constituting a severe humanitarian problem, UXO is also a significant impediment to Lao’s economic development. As the UNDP has reported,

High levels of poverty in rural [Laotian] communities often correlate with high levels of UXO contamination. UXO/Mine Action is the absolute pre-condition for the socio-economic development of Lao PDR and for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and National Socio Economic Development Plan (NSEDP).”

In short, UXO directly inhibits the health and development of the Lao economy. Much of Laos’ economic development depends on its ability to exploit its abundant natural resources for mining, hydropower, forestry and tourism. The presence of UXO in over a third of the country renders efforts to grow these industries unsafe. Thus, clearing UXO is not only a humanitarian priority but an economic one.

The U.S. has recognized the terrible impact of UXO on Laos, most recently in an April 22, 2010 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment.  However, American financial assistance in rectifying the problem has been less than satisfactory, to put it mildly.  The Lao government’s National Regulatory Authority (NRA), which is responsible for de-mining along with UXO Laos, has been spending between $12 and $14 million a year to clear UXO. Only a small part of that cost is covered by U.S. donations. According to a State Department representative, from 1993 to 2009 the U.S. contributed $25 million to de-mining efforts, or an average of $1.5 million a year. In 2009 that number rose slightly, to $3.7 million, and FY 2010 has seen the highest contribution so far, at $5 million. Unfortunately, the State Department’s proposed FY 2011 allotment for de-mining in Laos is significantly smaller at $1.9 million. As Channapha Khamvongsa, Executive Director of the nonprofit Legacies of War, has pointed out, the U.S. spent more money in three days of dropping bombs on Laos than it has in the past fifteen years cleaning those bombs up.

The lack of U.S. fiscal assistance to Laos is both embarrassing and wrong. Laos already receives very little in the form of generalized American foreign assistance- $5 million in 2009. Regionally, this is in comparison to Thailand’s $15 million, Burma’s $17 million, Cambodia’s $65 million, and Vietnam’s $102 million.  Since de-mining activities in Laos began in 1994, only 500,000 bomblets (out of an estimated 80 million) have been destroyed and only 1% of contaminated land cleared. A significant hindrance to progress is related to the lack of funding, particularly for equipment. Were the U.S. to commit to greater levels of funding, progress could be faster, thus reducing the unnecessary loss of life and stagnation of development in Laos.

The U.S. has no excuse for not taking full financial responsibility for clearing UXO in Laos. On the rather rare occasions when the problem of UXO Laos is discussed by the American government and media, it is done so in a way that fails to adequately accept responsibility for the problem. This is unacceptable. Secretary Clinton may have told Southeast Asia that “the U.S. is back,” but when it comes to Laos, that remains to be seen. Let’s hope she means it.

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