UXO warning sign in Xiengkhouang Privince. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/Joseph Wenkoff
Ireland has a long-standing commitment to disarmament and non-proliferation, reflected in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Foreign Policy where it is one of Ireland’s five Signature Foreign Policies.
The Government of Ireland’s support, through the Irish Aid programme, to humanitarian demining and the clearance of unexploded ordnance (UXO), including weapons and ammunition disposal, helps poor countries to reduce risks to civilians from remnants of past conflicts, including anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions.
Ireland’s support for the clearance of unexploded ordnance in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) began in 2006. Per capita, Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country in the world. During the Second Indochina War between 1964 and 1975, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on the country, including about 270 million cluster munitions (or ‘bombies’). Some 75 million unexploded bombs were left after the war ended. Over four decades later an estimated 87,000 square kilometres of land remain potentially contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
Since 2006, Ireland has contributed a total of €5.4 million, through funds administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and programmes implemented by national government partners such as UXO Lao and the Lao National Regulatory Authority for the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) and Mine Action Sector. The funding is targeted at the clearance of the most contaminated provinces. In total, during the past 20 years of its existence, UXO Lao has cleared more than 61,000 hectares of land for safe use, destroying more than 1.8 million pieces of different types of UXO.
While the most effective way to prevent casualties is to clear unexploded ordnance for good, the reality in Lao PDR is that people desperately need to use lands for farming and have no choice but to enter dangerous and contaminated areas whether it be to gather firewood, cultivate crops or to care for their livestock. Irish funds have also supported community efforts which teach villagers how to live in the midst of the unexploded ordnance in areas yet unreached by clearance activities. Many mine and unexploded ordnance casualties are children so it is especially important that children are aware of the danger. In 2016 alone, 145,000 people, including 73,500 children, were reached by activities, such as puppet shows, songs, dances and games to build awareness, show local people what to look for, encourage safe behaviour around mines and prevent devastating accidents. Without a shadow of doubt, these activities have contributed to the huge decrease in casualties over the years, from a high of 302 in 2008 to 59 in 2016.
Bomb shells in recycled use in Southern Laos. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo
At a policy and strategic level, the contribution from Ireland helped in the building of capacity of the Lao National Regulatory Authority for the UXO and Mine Action Sector. This organisation is mandated to coordinate the UXO sector, ensure that international treaty obligations are being met and develop policies and national standards to ensure the high quality of survey and clearance activities. The National Regulatory Authority played a crucial role in introducing a new evidence-based survey methodology, and is constantly providing oversight and guidance to all survey operators including UXO Lao.
“Our work takes patience and persistence. Some days can be very challenging, knowing the villagers need their land. Each day my team gives everything to make Lao PDR safe for our people.” Saysamone, age 40, works for UXO Lao, the national unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance operator in the landlocked Southeast Asian country of Lao PDR.
Saysamone at work. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/Lou Sensouphone
59 persons were injured or killed last year through exploding bombs in Lao PDR, from a war that ended over 40 years ago. The ‘bombies’, as these unexploded bombs are locally known, have left its people living in fear.
“There’s a long way to go. We have over 4,000 hazardous areas confirmed and listed as having UXO presence, but the number keeps rising. It’s easy to feel disheartened. But every bomb we clear could be land for a new school or a child’s life saved”, Clearance Team Leader Saysamone says.
“I don’t know if Laos will be free of UXO in my lifetime. But the thought of us providing better, safer lives for our children and grandchildren brings me hope that one day we can live without fear,” says Saysamone with a smile.
Witness Saysamone's work in the field and how Irish Funds make a difference in the effort to make lives safe in Lao PDR by watching UNDP's 360 degree film The bombs below.