Australian Minister’s visit highlights the challenges of tackling the UXO in Laos

22 Feb 2013

imageA UXO clearance site in Luang Prabang province, Laos. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/ Eeva Nyyssonen

This week Laos saw the visit of the Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Aside from meetings with the Lao Government in Vientiane, the Minister travelled to Luang Prabang province in Northern Laos to investigate what he called “the terrible legacy of the second Indo-China war”. He was referring to the millions of cluster munitions dropped in Laos during 1964 and 1973 that failed to explode and still continue to kill and injure civilians today, 40 years after the war ended.

Australia is currently one of the main donors helping Laos to deal with these deadly remnants of the war, and on Wednesday the Foreign Minister announced an additional $5.4 million AUD (approx. $5.5 million USD) in support of the ongoing Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) clearance, mine risk education and survivor assistance work in Laos. Speaking at a UXO clearance site in Luang Prabang province, Minister Carr vowed that “Australia’s absolutely on it” to help Laotians to reclaim their land from the UXO, so they can safely use it for farming and their children to play on it.

Clearance works have been ongoing in Laos since 1996, when UXO Lao was founded as the national clearance operator, with assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNICEF. UNDP has also helped the Government of Laos to establish a National Regulatory Authority (NRA) for the UXO and Mine Action sector and continues to provide technical support to both organisations. Most of UXO Lao’s clearance operations, victim assistance and risk education work is funded through the UXO Trust Fund, managed by UNDP.

Minister Carr’s trip to Luang Prabang included a visit to the UXO Lao visitor centre in Luang Prabang town and a field visit to a clearance site in the nearby Pak Ou district, where he met a team of de-miners and other UXO Lao staff. Mr. Carr was clearly touched by what he saw, and was keen to share his experience with his many Twitter followers as he kept posting real-time updates and photos from the mission.

More awareness of the UXO problem in Laos is indeed needed. Despite the provincial capital of Luang Prabang being a famous UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the “must-see” destinations in South-East Asia, most visitors remain unaware of the tragic history of the area. Luang Prabang was home to the royalist forces during the war, making it an important strategic stronghold and the 4th most bombed province in Laos. Most of the hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking there every year will never come face to face with the UXO, which remain scattered across the mountains or buried underground in the rice fields, occasionally getting picked up by local farmers or curious children, often with fatal consequences.

Although the number of UXO-related casualties has been declining over the last few years – possibly due to an increased awareness of the risks of UXO among the local population as well as the falling prices of scrap metal – last year there were still at least 52 recorded victims in Laos, including 15 deaths. The UXO continue to pose a very real threat to the people living in UXO-contaminated areas, which include up to one in four villages in Laos. Every accident is one too many, usually having a catastrophic effect on the victim and their families.

Generous donors make the work of UXO Lao possible, but an enormous job remains to be done: Some estimations suggest that less than one-tenth the contaminated land has been cleared so far.  It’s a painstakingly slow job, but it has to go on: every single item of UXO that gets destroyed means there is one less that could kill or injure.

More photos and information about Bob Carr's visit to UXO Lao are available on facebook

Make a virtual visit to the UXO Lao Visitor Centre and a UXO clearance site through our photo essay on facebook