President Obama Announces $90 million for UXO Remediation in Laos
U.S. contributes significant resources to help cleanup the deadly legacy it left behind in the most bombed country in the history of the world.
Last week President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Laos when he attended a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hosted in the capital city of Vientiane. There he announced the U.S. will contribute $90 million to ongoing efforts to remediate the country of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Vietnam War.
As part of the conflict between the U.S. and neighboring Vietnam the U.S. conducted the so-called “Secret War” to cut-off supply routes, dropping more than two million tons of ordnance in Laos during more than half a million bombing missions from 1964 to 1973. These incredible numbers make Laos the most bombed country in history on a per-capita basis—more than Germany or Japan in WWII.
While the immediate impact of the bombings was devastating, a deadly legacy lives on buried in the land of Laos. It is estimated that one-third of bombs dropped during the war failed to explode. As a result, roughly 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the war ended.
In the universe of contamination, UXO is among the most immediate and deadly threats to human health and the environment. UXO remediation is technical and harrowing work performed by well-trained experts. Unfortunately, war torn countries often don’t have the resources to adequately train and equip the staff required to remediate large areas bombed-out during the conflict. Often areas ridden with UXO linger for decades after the armistice is achieved.
Educating the local populace on the potential dangers of UXO, especially children, is also a vital element to avoiding terrible outcomes. The $90 million commitment announced by President Obama will help ramp up both physical remediation efforts and prevention through education.
But another environmental legacy left behind from the Vietnam war went unmentioned. According to some estimates, the U.S. also dropped more than a half million gallons of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants in Laos to kill vegetative cover used by the North Vietnamese. These defoliants contained deadly chemicals, such as dioxin, which might not present such a clear and present danger to Laos today as UXO, but might have a deadlier legacy to human health and the environment.
Dioxin has been linked to birth defects, cancers, and many other diseases. The government has paid billions in disability payments and health care for U.S. soldiers who came into contact with Agent Orange during the war. It has also agreed to clean up dozens of former American polluted military sites.
To date, the U.S. has not addressed the use of agent orange and other chemicals deployed during the war in Laos. Dioxin remediation is discussed but doesn't seem to exist on the policy radar screen in any meaningful way, though many advocates are working towards ameliorating the effects this deadly contamination has wrought on Laos.
President Obama's visit made history and opens the door to future visits by future presidents, where we can hope the remediation focus widens towards healing all the environmental legacies left behind by the dirty business of war.
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