Programs set up in Laos to clear unexploded ordnance left over from heavy U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War are being hindered by shortfalls of funds from foreign donors, sources in the Southeast Asian country say.
Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service, an official of the labor and social welfare department of Xieng Khouang province in northeastern Laos said that the work of UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearing teams in his province has now slowed due to severe cuts in support.
“We need a lot of funding,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This year we received only one million dollars, while usually we get at least two million.”
“We have difficult tasks to perform, like the clearing of forests, but we can’t do this now because we don’t have the people or the money to do the work,” he said.
Also speaking to RFA, an official in Khammouane province in central Laos said that support for clearance efforts in his province was also cut in half this year, leaving the hiring of workers and purchase of badly needed equipment out of reach.
We now have only 160 workers, but we need at least 60 more to staff our teams,” the official said, also speaking on condition he not be named.
“Each of our teams needs 10 workers, along with equipment including six or seven metal detectors, a small truck, two lawnmowers, and a GPS system,” the official said.
“Our province usually receives two million dollars a year to support our work, but this year we got only a million.”
Delays in pay
In Luang Prabang province in the northern part of the country, shortfalls of funds led recently to a three-month delay in the province's clearing teams being paid, sources in the province said.
“We have not been paid for three months, from the first month to the third month of this year,” a member of the province’s clearing team told RFA on April 1, adding, “We’re working for free now.”
“We don’t know what’s going on. All of this is decided by our higher-ups. There may be a problem with documentation,” he said.
Speaking to RFA on April 10, an official in the province’s administration office said that all workers had now been paid, however.
“They got paid yesterday, with everyone getting triple pay,” he said.
A delay in the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between donor country Norway and the central government in Laos, which through its UXO Laos department distributes supporting funds to the provincial teams, had held up the workers’ pay, he said.
“The old MOU expired in December 2018,” he said. “So from January to March, we were trying to negotiate another contract and sign a new MOU.”
Equipment wears out
UXO Laos, the Lao national UXO clearance agency, is suffering a budget shortfall of $4.5 million for its work this year, according to reports in the government-tied newspaper Vientiane Times, with an official in the department telling RFA recently that at least $1.5 million is now needed for work in southern provinces like Sekong, Salavan, and Attapeu.
The agency needs the money to buy new equipment and vehicles for clearing since the old ones have worn out, the official said.
Foreign donors have urged Laos to remove unexploded ordnance from up to 10,000 hectares this year, this year, the official said, adding, “But because of the budget shortfall, we’ll be able to clear only 3,500 hectares.”
Speaking to RFA via teleconference on April 3, Jerry Guilbert—Chief of Programs for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement—said that the U.S. committed $30 million last year to UXO clearance in Laos.
“That $30 million we committed to Laos last year is actually the final tranche of the $90 million that the United States has committed over a three-year period back in 2016. So that $90 million deliverable [has been met],” he said.
The U.S. Congress may provide an additional $30 million for Laos in the coming years, Guilbert said.
“But regarding budget shortfalls, you can contact UXO Laos or the Lao government directly for more details,” he said.
Thousands killed, injured
The U.S. military dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos over a nine-year period up to 1973 while attempting to disrupt the Vietcong supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.
Around 20,000 civilians are believed to have been killed or injured by explosives since the end of the war. Some 40 percent of the victims in the past 10 years have been children.
International assistance for bomb clearance in Laos began in earnest only about 20 years ago and experts believe that it will take many more decades to ensure that affected areas are safe.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.