By Nick Cumming-Bruce, Mine Action Editor, Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
Lao PDR is making slow progress clearing unexploded ordnance, rumbles an article in the national newspaper the Vientiane Times this month, the country is falling behind targets. So far, so accurate. But then it goes on to say that since clearance started in 1996, operators have tackled only one per cent of the problem. How could anyone know?
Since 1996 Lao PDR has never quantified the problem. A partial survey by Handicap International in 1997 remains the only effort to do so, but that focused more on impact than contamination and didn’t cover the whole country. The comment reflects a rather blurry perception of the cluster munitions problem in particular that is not limited to Lao PDR.
Few countries contaminated by cluster munitions need more than five years to complete survey and clearance. Among states that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), only Lao PDR and Lebanon rank as heavily contaminated. Among the states that haven’t, only Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq probably belong on the list. But for all countries with contamination, big or small, survey to establish the real contamination before undertaking large-scale Battle Area Clearance (BAC) is a prerequisite for efficient and effective operations.
In Lao PDR, clearance tasks have been selected on the basis of requests, but not necessarily with a clear view of actual contamination. Past studies found a significant proportion of the land cleared had nothing on it. Matters have improved in recent years but the statistics on devices found per square meter should help the National Regulatory Authority (NRA) to make a policy decision to switch more resources towards survey.
The Vientiane Times, pondering the slow rate of progress in clearing UXO, observes that the sector needs $50 million a year and international donors are providing only $30 million. The question it might ask is how can donors keep funding to the tune of almost US$ 30 million a year without asking for a national survey, that details contamination rather than impact, clarifying the baseline, the targets and the real rate of progress?