Fast Tracking The Hunt For Time Bombs In Laos

Minh Pham, Former United Nations Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative in Lao PDR

Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by Shawn Khoong

LAOS – Four decades have passed since the end of the Vietnam War in Laos in 1975.

Yet, the scars of war continue to affect Laos on a daily basis, a legacy that births from the fact that more than 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, making Laos the most bombed country per capita in the world.

Today, one third of Laos remains contaminated with up to 80 million unexploded cluster bombs. The United Nations in the Lao PDR estimates that less than 2 per cent of contaminated areas have been cleared over the last four decades.

According to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action in Lao PDR, at least 20,000 people (25 per cent of them children) have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos since the Vietnam War-era bombings ended. Reducing the impact of UXO on communities became the ninth Millennium Development Goal specific to Lao PDR.

Despite high levels of investment from the international community and advancements in the human and institutional capacity to deal with the situation, the problem of UXO is still very significant within Laos.

“The UXO problem now constitutes an impediment to socio-economic development in our country. We cannot carry out our development projects and poverty eradication without getting the UXO out of our land,” said Saleumxay Kommasith, Vice-Minister from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Former United Nations Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative in Lao PDR Minh Pham speaks to us on a project that explores the use of new technology to fast track the current detection practice for unexploded ordnance.

How was the land ordnance project conceived?

Unexploded ordnance or UXO as we call it is a danger to the rural communities. Over the past decades, we have only managed to clear a very small proportion of the UXO that is distributed all over Laos.

There is a huge gap in resources between what is available and what is required for the detection and clearance of UXO in Laos. The UXO situation in Laos is tantamount to the imposition of a lifetime tax on development for the country. Being a Vietnamese-American, I have direct attachment to the issue and the desire to help drives me to look for new solutions that can help address this problem.

What do you hope to achieve and how has the progress been?

Laos is still using technology from WWII for the detection of UXO. Hand scans and clearance per hectare of land requires the deployment of seven people over a period of nearly one month. It is a slow and labour intensive process. I’m proposing the use of drones to speed up detection. It is estimated that detectors carried by drones would be able to cover up to 10 hectares of land in one day.

I am working with Johannes Baptist Stoll, a German expert on the use of drones for mineral detection to test if this technology can be used to accurately detect a variety of unexploded bombs, some as small as the size of a tennis ball.

Based on current data, we know that the concentration of UXO is in the North and South of Laos as these were the entry and exit points during the Vietnam War. However, a detailed UXO map has never been done. The information that is available from the US bombing sorties may not be fully accurate given that UXO might have shifted over time due to land movements and erosion.

We need to have a good map of the unexploded bombs. In the absence of full data, we will not be able to fully address the UXO problem. Simply put, you cannot resolve something you can’t count. With a detailed national detection map, we can then classify the affected areas according to contamination levels. This will then help prioritise clearance efforts and determine the level of risk we are able to live with.

We have started discussions with the government of Laos, specifically the National Regulatory Agency and UXO Laos, the implementing arm for detection and clearance, to get buy-in and support. The pilot project will require a funding of US$100,000 and we are in the midst of raising funds from the international community.

What challenges have you faced?

A key challenge relates to skills and capacity gaps in Laos. To implement the project, we will need to have good, strong technicians with the skills to interpret technical data and make analytical assessments on whether something is a bomb or not.

Given the geography of Laos, we will have to test if the technology can deal with physical obstacles such as trees and uneven terrains that may interfere with the scan. To ensure cost efficiency, the extent of the detection should go according to the intended use of the land that is being scanned. For instance, land that will be used for agriculture would require scans that cover a minimum depth of 30cm. Land that is planned for infrastructure such as roads, schools, mining and other heavy industries would require scans that go much deeper and the cost of clearance would consequently be higher. We intend to conduct a detailed cost benefit analysis to assess if the project would make financial sense.

The project team will also work with closely with NRA/UXO Lao, particularly with the Ministry of Defense to address any related security issues.

What else is keeping you busy?

Malnutrition is a chronic problem in Laos. About one third of children under the age of 5 are underweight and 48 per cent are stunted. The first 1000 days of a child’s life set the foundation for the quality of his or her physical and cognitive development. We are exploring ways to incorporate Moringa, a plant that has tremendous nutritional properties and health benefits, into the diet of children. An idea is to add Moringa leaf powder to the seasoning sachets in instant noodle packets, a food that is widely consumed in Laos.

Separately, we are also working on a project to design affordable cargo and people carriers for motorbikes in Asia. Through innovative design, we hope to help poor and small-scale entrepreneurs in Asia who already own motorbikes, and rely on them for their livelihoods, to achieve higher income potential by maximising their haul capability and mobility in a safe and sustainable way.

About

Minh Pham recently completed a 25 year-career with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), having served in New York, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. He specialises in international development, trade and sovereign debt.

During his last 12 years with the UN, he served as the Resident Representative of the UN Secretary General and the head of UNDP in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Laos.

In the Maldives, Minh played a key role in Maldives’ constitutional reforms, which led to the country’s multi-party democracy. In Sri Lanka, covering Asia and the Pacific, Minh led the publication of the Regional Human Development Report (a flagship publication of UNDP). Prior, Minh successfully advocated and brokered Jamaica’s first major domestic debt relief, which resulted in savings of US$500 million a year in interest payments.

Minh holds a M.A. in International Finance and Banking from Columbia University and a B.A. in French and Finance from the State University of New York at Albany. He is fluent in English, French and Vietnamese.

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