UXO, short for Unexploded Ordnance, is a term well known in Laos. One-third of the munitions that were dropped on the country between 1964 and 1973 failed to detonate on impact, posing a risk even today, many decades later. One village in four is exposed to the risks from UXOs, and some provinces are more affected than others.
Especially in rural areas, villagers have to be wary of where they walk, play, or cook. Farmers are prevented from cultivating their fields for fear of plowing into UXOs. This insecurity cuts at livelihoods, and in turn affect the country’s economy. The presence of UXOs is a major impediment to social, economic and environmental development.
This well-known problem can be exacerbated by the current changes in weather patterns caused by the changing climate. This year, flash floods are ravaging Northern and Southern parts of Laos, while the shock of the national emergency last year is still fresh in our memory. When rivers deluge and water masses billow across the land, they seize everything in their path, regardless of size, weight or composition, wrenching people, animals and their livelihoods out of their foundation.
Floodwaters can dislocate UXOs easily, carrying them to locations previously surveyed, cleared and deemed safe. In such cases, recovery actions need to be paired with quick and agile surveys, clearance, or – at the minimum – risk education activities for villagers.
In spite of many actors in the UXO sectors, as of today, both Lao PDR and its partners are challenged to clear all the UXOs in the country – let alone undertake an all-encompassing survey to assess whether the cluster munitions have recently shifted place. The process of survey and clearance is very labor-intensive and costly, and it is almost impossible to estimate when all UXOs will be eliminated in Laos.
All the more important, then, that there are partners who are willing to engage quickly and in an unbureaucratic manner, especially in times of or immediately following a crisis. The Government of Australia, for example, swiftly provided funding for the deployment of UXO clearance teams to ensure the safety of resettled communities in Attapeu Province that were dislocated by the floods of 2018. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been engaging in the UXO sector in Lao PDR since 1996, working together with a range of development partners who all see the importance of contributing to ending Lao PDR’s war legacy.
A few donors provide so-called “unearmarked” funding, which can be deployed swiftly where gaps and funding shortfalls are evident, without being tied to specific activities or areas. The Grand Dutchy of Luxembourg and Ireland currently contribute such untied funding in the height of US $ 3 million over a period of four years. Funds that are not slotted for a specific activity allow UNDP 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. In times where funds for development assistance are dwindling and proposal processes lengthy, such allocations are much needed, allowing the sector to be agile and reactive to changes and shocks.
The country’s own addition to the global palette of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 18: Lives safe from UXO, is a commitment to put an end to the cluster munitions problem, with a target date of 2030. Laos and its partners have made significant inroads into realizing SDG 18, and decreasing the impact UXOs have on lives. Casualty rates are at an all-time low: between 1964 and 2012, almost 1,000 people fell prey to UXOs annually. Last year, 24 victims were counted. On the long road ahead towards bringing that number down to zero, in the light of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, it will be all the more important that we can jointly engage, provide funding and expertise where needed, moving in quickly when situations are dire. With the help of flexible partners like Luxembourg and Ireland, UNDP will be able to realize its commitment to “Leave no one behind”.
Written by Ricarda Rieger, Resident Representative, Lao PDR, United Nations Development Programme