Clearing the way for Lao PDR

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Treading lightly with her bare feet, 48-year-old Lar from Pakmong village in Lao PDR’s northern Luang Prabang Province smiles at her rice paddies where seedlings slowly mature into the main staple of the country. “We are rice and vegetable farmers”, says the mother of five, “but imagine our shock when my husband and I one day dug out a bombie while working in the field. We didn’t know what to do, so I used a plastic bag to pick it up and throw it away. We were scared as we had never seen a bomb before.”

Highlights

  • Lao PDR is the most cluster munitions and UXO affected country in the world, with 25% of its villages still contaminated and around 50 people killed and injured in UXO accidents annually.
  • To help accelerate progress, a Lao-specific MDG 9 was adopted in 2010; one of the targets is to ‘reduce substantially the number of casualties as a result of UXO incidents’.
  • In 1996, UNDP and UNICEF helped the Lao PDR government to develop the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao) to clear the country of unexploded sub-munitions.
  • In 2014 alone, UXO Lao, supported by UNDP and its Development Partners, released 3,253 hectares of land through clearance and technical survey. Since the programme began in 1996, more than 30,000 hectares of land – 300 square kilometers – have been cleared and more than 1 million items of UXO destroyed.

The ‘bombie’, as they are known in Lao PDR, was one of 270 million anti-personnel cluster bomblets dropped on the country during the Second Indochina War (1964-1975), originally intended to explode on or shortly after impact. Whereas manufacturers of the ordnance estimated a failure rate of some 10%, it is now generally agreed that actually, it may have been as high as 30%. As a result, even today, unexploded ordnance (UXO) still constitutes a hazard for the population – around 50 people are injured and killed every year in Laos.

Lar and her family were lucky. The bomb did not explode, but the family lived in fear. “Every time we worked on our field, we were afraid. We couldn’t plant as much, resulting in less income.”

Socioeconomic development in Laos is hindered by the presence of UXO, in a country that is slowly emerging from the Least Developed Country -status. In 2010, reduction of the impact of UXO became specialized Millennium Development Goal number 9 for Lao PDR.

UXO Lao, the national UXO clearance operator, is using a new, evidence-based survey methodology to focus clearance on areas clearly identified as being contaminated with UXO. In addition to agricultural land, they target areas designated for development activities, such as construction of schools and village health centers.  UXO Lao, supported by UNDP since 1996, also delivers education on risks in highly UXO contaminated areas. Via textbooks and radio messages, adults and children learn how to live with the hazard of UXO. In 2014 alone, 200,000 people in 650 villages, half of which children, were reached by such risk activities, including puppet shows, songs, dances, and games. UNDP also administers the UXO Trust Fund, a mechanism established in 2010 to mobilize, coordinate and manage international assistance to the UXO sector.

For Lar and her family, UXO Lao put an end to the anxiety. “They came to clear our land from bombs, free of charge, and now we can use all parts of our land. We are happy now that our family is safe.” And word is spreading: Lar’s neighbors have already requested their land to be cleared. Paddy by paddy, step by step, Lao PDR’s future is being built into a narrative without remnants of war.  

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