Vietnam’s Struggle to Overcome the Legacy of US Bombs

In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities. (Image Source: US Navy)

The recent Hanoi summit attended by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thrust Vietnam into the global spotlight; a rare moment of publicity in the modern era for a country which dominated the world’s attention through the unfolding horrors of war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet the hosts were left disappointed when the summit collapsed, after failed talks on de-nuclearization prompted the US delegation to depart early for Washington. Five decades earlier the US had been in no rush to leave despite a similar sense of impending mission failure, instead sending thousands more troops and sticking around to bomb Vietnam for eight years from 1965-1973. While the summit leaves no lasting impression, the legacy of unexploded bombs and toxic contamination from the war remains.

Just days after dialogue faltered in Hanoi, a huge 350kg US-made war-era bomb was unearthed 400km further south in the central province of Quang Binh, as a family dug foundations for their new house. The live air-dropped bomb, discovered close to the busy national highway 1A, was one of the largest found in recent years. The area was evacuated and the bomb later safely defused by demining experts. While deaths or injuries were avoided, the find is a stark reminder of the lingering risk from US bombs.

The effects of Agent Orange also persist in central areas of Vietnam, where soil and waterways remain contaminated after toxic defoliants were sprayed by the US to deny forest cover to Viet Cong troops.

With Vietnam back out of the media glare after the Hanoi summit, and with global attention fixed on new conflict hot-spots in the Middle East, there is concern over the future will of foreign governments and international donors to clear unexploded ordnance from former battle zones in Indochina. Given Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ foreign policy and desire to cut funding overseas, there are also doubts over whether the US commitment to help Vietnam heal from the war is set for the long-term.

The lasting impact of US bombing raids on Vietnam

In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped around 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities in an attempt to turn the tide of the war between the US-backed south and the communist-controlled North. A significant proportion of bombs failed to detonate on impact, and remain buried just beneath the surface in the countryside.

Since hostilities ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, accidents involving unexploded ordnance (UXO) have claimed more than 105,000 victims across the country, killing at least 38,900 and leaving 66,000 injured. Meanwhile 7% of Vietnamese citizens, or 6.2 million people, have a disability, while 13% live in households with at least one disabled occupant. UXO explosions are a major contributory factor to Vietnam’s high disability rate, in many cases leaving victims with crippling conditions such as lost limbs and blindness. Agent Orange has also been blamed for an unusually high rate of severe birth defects.

UXO survivors often sustain life-changing injuries as a result of shrapnel wounds, including loss of eyesight and loss of limbs. More than 100,000 people have been killed or injured after coming into contact with UXO in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. (Image Source: James Hathaway)

Farmers and scrap metal collectors most often fall victim to UXO blasts after coming into contact with ordnance in rural areas. Children are also disproportionately affected, with thousands having suffered injuries after mistaking spherical-shaped cluster bomblets for toys. Since the mid-1990s, a number of organizations have run risk education classes to help educate local communities of the hidden danger.

Added to the immediate physical effects on those caught up in accidents, UXO contamination has had a wider socio-economic impact. Tens-of-thousands of victims require long-term physical rehabilitation and psychological support, placing a strain on Vietnam’s healthcare system. In micro-economic terms UXO can have a devastating effect, removing the earning-capacity of the main breadwinner in families and placing a double burden on relatives in the form of providing care and making-up for lost income. The prevailing threat of UXO also restricts agriculture and development in rural areas near the former demilitarized zone in central Vietnam, where fighting was most intense. Quang Tri province, along the old dividing line, is worst-hit: up to 84% of land here is contaminated, compared to 15% nationwide.

Local and international demining efforts since the 1990s

For more than 20 years since the mid-1990s, a collection of experienced international NGOs has been working to rid Vietnam of UXO alongside local state-run agencies and the Vietnamese armed forces. In recent years, Danish Demining Group (DDG), Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have been among those operating in central areas to clear land and provide risk education.

The Vietnamese government has also been working to improve national-level infrastructure in recent years to better co-ordinate and oversee the demining effort. In 2013, a military-run Vietnam National Mine Action Centre (VNMAC) was established, while last year Hanoi formed Steering Committee 701 on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences, to propose new solutions and mobilize civil society actors both at home and abroad to confront war legacy issues.

Since the mid-1990s, a network of international de-mining groups has been working to clear UXO in Vietnam alongside state-run agencies and the Vietnamese military. (Image Source: USAID)

The government is hoping to make greater inroads into combatting the harmful legacy of UXO in the coming years, and aims to clear 800,000 hectares of bomb-contaminated land by 2025. However, this only represents a small percentage of the affected area, which totals at least 6.1 million hectares. The true figure may turn out to be even higher once a full survey has been completed. It is estimated that the removal of all UXO items in Vietnam will take up to a century and cost an eye-watering US$10bn.

Speaking at a global mine awareness conference last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said UXO was still holding the country back four decades after the guns fell silent. ‘‘Although the war has been over, the severe consequences of landmines, UXO and toxic chemicals still exist, affecting human health and living environments. Many people have lost their lives or suffered the loss of a part of their body, or lost their loved ones’’. Phuc added the presence of UXO still limits socio-economic progress.

Concerns over future US and global demining support

In the past year, new funding has been announced from the UK, Norway and South Korea to continue demining activities in the worst-affected provinces. In mid-2018, South Korea committed US$20m for survey and clearance in Binh Dinh and Quang Binh, while a deal was signed with the NPA to fund work in Quang Tri until 2022. Late last year, funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was announced to support the work of MAG in Quang Tri. Yet the US remains the main source of external funding, providing over 90% of total foreign assistance for UXO projects in Vietnam in 2017.

The US is the largest foreign donor supporting de-mining efforts in Vietnam, investing at least US$119.3m from 1993-2017. The UK and Norway are also major donors. (Image Source: USAID)

Between 1993-2017, the US has invested at least US$119.3m for UXO-related programmes in Vietnam. For two decades, the network of in-country demining operators has relied primarily on US finance to expand their vital work. There are now concerns that under the more isolationist and inward-looking administration of President Trump – intent on cost-cutting on projects abroad which are not deemed in the national interest – sustained US help for the UXO clean-up in Vietnam appears more uncertain. And with the Vietnam War fading into distant memory, other foreign funding sources are also fragile.

Will war legacy issues remain central in US-Vietnam ties?

Does the US have a moral obligation to help Vietnam recover from a conflict which is now condemned widely in the west and increasingly viewed as an aggressive act of Cold War-era misadventure? Former president Obama appeared to hold that view, stating his belief on a 2016 visit to Laos that the US had a duty to help Vietnam’s neighbour ‘heal’ from the pain caused by past US actions in the region. It is unclear whether President Trump, and future US presidents, will share such sentiment. There are positive signs: the US recently completed an operation to remove Agent Orange toxins from land near Da Nang airport, and is due to start decontaminating a larger site at Bien Hoa air base later this year.

Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, the US and Vietnam have enjoyed a blossoming bilateral relationship centred on defence and security co-operation. (Image Source: US Embassy Vietnam)

In the four decades since the war ended, geopolitical realities have shifted and the rapid rise of China has pushed Vietnam and the US closer together faster than anticipated. Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, relations between the two former enemies have blossomed, most ironically in the field of defence. The Hanoi-Washington security relationship has been evidenced since Trump came to power by a rising frequency of high-level visits. Trump has visited twice, while State Secretary Mike Pompeo and former Defence Secretary James Mattis have also made trips to take part in high-level exchanges.

The US has focused mainly on improving Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities in the context of the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam is a major claimant state and is opposed to China’s expansive claim. Last year, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier docked at Da Nang port for four days, marking the first visit by a US carrier since the war. The US has also transferred a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese navy, funded the acquisition of 24 45-ft patrol boats – 12 of which have already been delivered – and granted Vietnam US$26.25m to boost its maritime security capacity during 2017-2018. Once an enemy, Vietnam is now one of the US’ most dependable security partners in Southeast Asia.

Four decades since the war ended, more than 15% of Vietnam’s land area is still contaminated with UXO. In central Quang Tri province, 84% of land is affected. The Vietnamese government predicts the full clean-up will take a century and cost up to US$10bn. (Image Source: USAF)

In this context, a long-term US commitment to fund UXO clearance in the coming decades would not only be in the interests of Vietnam’s prosperity and continued economic development, cementing its recovery from the war. It would also be in the US’ national interest, helping to cement its growing ties with Hanoi as it aims to refocus on the Indo-Pacific, while signalling its recognition of the harm caused in Vietnam. Only when the last bomb is cleared, can the shared horrors of the war be fully lain to rest.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Four decades on, Laos grapples with Vietnam War’s explosive legacy

The national clearance agency – UXO-Lao – has been working with international NGOs to clear unexploded bombs left behind from the Vietnam War (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

This in-depth feature is an extended version of an article published on Asian Correspondent.

More than four decades after the last bomb fell from the skies above the remote and landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, its countryside remains littered with deadly remnants from a conflict which long-ago faded into distant memory for many in the West. For the people of Laos however, the harmful impacts of the Vietnam War continue to reverberate deep into the 21st Century.

A covert nine-year US bombing campaign resulted in more than two million tonnes of ordnance being dumped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This campaign was dubbed the ‘Secret War’, as the raids were conducted without the authorization of Congress and without the knowledge of the American public. During the onslaught around 30,000 people were killed or maimed, and an additional 20,000 casualties have been incurred since the campaign ended, as civilians have inadvertently come into contact with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind.

In recent years there has been a marked reduction in annual deaths and injuries – from more than 300 in 2008 to less than 50 last year – following an intensification of nationwide clearance efforts. However, this success in reducing the direct physical impacts of UXO must not blur the wider humanitarian legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: less than 2% of the total contaminated land area has been cleared, in a country which remains amongst the poorest in the region. In short, UXO serves as a major and debilitating impediment to Laos’ development.

Around 80 million cluster bomblets remain hidden in forests, submerged along river banks and buried in fertile soil. This extensive level of contamination renders large swathes of agricultural land unusable, denting crop production and worsening food insecurity. The presence of UXO also hampers construction: vast areas of land need to be painstakingly cleared before building work can begin, making infrastructure projects more dangerous, costly and time-consuming. The long-term injuries suffered by victims have also created a nationwide disability crisis, placing a huge burden on the country’s overstretched healthcare system and depriving many families of income.

These effects combine to harm social and economic development at both the local and national level, leaving many Laotians unable to escape a life of isolation, poverty and hardship.

Before assessing the impacts of UXO on development in more detail, it is essential to first trace the history of the UXO problem in Laos: from the Vietnam War and subsequent bombing campaign to the more recent clearance efforts of the last two decades.

The US bombing of Laos has long been overshadowed by the wider narrative of the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and ended when Saigon fell twenty years later. The conflict was often viewed through the lens of the wider struggle between the two global superpowers of the Cold War era, when the US sought to contain the spread of communism through halting the ‘domino effect’ in Southeast Asia. In this context in the early 1960s, large numbers of US troops became engaged in an increasingly bloody and intractable ground war against the communist North Vietnamese.

By 1963, the war had spilled across Vietnam’s long and snaking western border. North Vietnamese troops began smuggling arms and equipment to south Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; an overland supply route carved through the dense forests of neighbouring south-eastern Laos and eastern Cambodia. At the same time, Pathet Lao communist fighters were increasingly engaging in battles with the US-backed Royal Lao Army in northern Laos, further raising US concerns over the ‘domino effect’ in the region.

In December 1964, the US responded to these developments by launching what became the most extensive bombing campaign in history, aimed at disrupting activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Congress had not been consulted and for several years the US government denied the existence of the campaign, referring only to ‘reconnaissance flights’ over Laos. Over the next nine years Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In total, US aircraft flew more than 580,000 sorties and dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance.

Cluster bombs – each containing up to 700 smaller bomblets which are released mid-air and dispersed over a wide area – were the most frequently-used weapon. Around 260 million bomblets in total were dropped during the campaign. Of these, around 80 million failed to detonate and now make up the bulk of UXO remnants littering the countryside. The scale of contamination is in fact so severe that UXO are present in 14 of Laos’ 17 provinces.

During the US bombing campaign from 1964-1973, aircraft flew 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The true extent of the campaign only became public knowledge after a series of US Senate hearings in 1971, which first exposed the ‘Secret War’ in Laos. Over the decades, further details have emerged as state department documents have been declassified and US military strike records have been released. Despite an initial public outrage the suffering inflicted on Laos remained in the headlines for only a relatively short period of time. Four-and-a-half decades on, the affair has drifted from public consciousness and has been largely forgotten.

The impacts on the civilian population have been overwhelming. More than 50,000 people have been killed or maimed since the bombing started in 1964, with 20,000 falling victim since the campaign ended in 1973. Children are disproportionately affected as they often mistake spherical cluster bomb casings for toys, accounting for 40% of UXO casualties.

Most accidents are caused by direct impact. This can occur when agricultural workers dig the soil, when villagers attempt to move or defuse bombs themselves, and when children mistakenly play with cluster bomblets. The burgeoning scrap metal trade in Laos has also exacerbated the problem, leading many impoverished residents to take huge risks for a quick financial return.

In the past twenty years UXO clearance efforts have gathered pace after several decades of inaction. In 1996 the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO-Lao) was established. UXO-Lao works with NGOs and international partners to co-ordinate nationwide clearance efforts on the ground. This was followed ten years later by the establishment of a National Regulatory Authority (NRA) to oversee the management of the UXO sector. International NGOs such as Mines Advisory Group, Handicap International and Legacies of War have played a vital role in raising awareness and undertaking complex removal work.

The direct humanitarian impacts of UXO in Laos are slowly receding. In the past two decades, more than 1.4 million UXO items have been destroyed and more than 3 million people living in the most heavily-contaminated areas have attended risk education classes. UXO-Lao says that since 2010, UXO clearance has made possible the construction of 478 new schools, 78 water systems and 75 new roads. In addition, the rate of death and injury from UXO has been reduced by 86% since 2008, with the government now aiming to limit casualties to less than 40 per year.

These figures are encouraging, yet still more needs to be done to tackle the huge scale of the problem: it is worth remembering that less than 2% of contaminated land has been cleared. Taking time to consider this reality – that 98% of contaminated land remains littered with UXO – allows for further reflection on the potentially hidden, longer-term and more indirect implications of the US bombing campaign. In this sense, it must be asked: to what extent has UXO impacted Laos’ development?

Despite achieving annual GDP growth of above 8% in the last few years, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. In the latest version of the UN Human Development Index, Laos is ranked 138th out of 188 countries, with only Myanmar (145) and Cambodia (143) faring worse in the region. Whilst there are numerous factors determining a country’s level of development, it can be argued that in the case of Laos, UXO contamination plays a unique role in stunting progress.

Around 260 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos in just nine years. More than 80 million failed to detonate, and now litter the countryside (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The correlation between UXO and underdevelopment is most visible through the prism of poverty. According to the World Bank, 41.7% of people in Laos earn less than $3.10 per day, whilst 16.7% of the population earn less than $1.90 per day. This represents a higher proportion of people living below the poverty line compared to other Southeast Asian states. In addition to a high poverty rate at the national level, a growing divide is emerging between urban and rural areas. The UNDP reported that the poverty rate was three times higher for the 63% of Laos’ population whom reside in the countryside, where the UXO threat is greatest. In fact, the correlation between poverty and UXO contamination is stark, with 42 of the 46 poorest districts being in areas with widespread UXO presence. This trend is especially pronounced in remote mountainous areas where it is more difficult to conduct clearance operations, and along the border with Vietnam where bombing was heaviest.

The correlation between UXO contamination and poverty is clear, yet explaining exactly why the presence of UXO exacerbates poverty and worsens development outcomes is a more complex undertaking. In this sense, UXO contamination has negative implications in three broad areas which are vitally important to Laos’ development: agriculture, infrastructure and healthcare.

Firstly, UXO hampers agricultural production and worsens food insecurity. Even before the bombing campaign, Laos already found itself disadvantaged due to its rugged mountainous geography. Agricultural land accounts for only 10% of total land area, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This is amongst the lowest in the region, and far less than neighbours Thailand (43%), Vietnam (36%) and Cambodia (33%). The presence of UXO across half of Laos’ arable land compounds these existing geographical disadvantages, meaning that only a small proportion of fertile land is able to be farmed. UXO has hit food production hard, leaving the country incapable of providing adequately for its burgeoning population, which now stands at 6.9 million.

As a result, rates of malnourishment are amongst the highest in the region. A 2016 study found that 18.5% of the population were undernourished, compared to 14% in Myanmar and Cambodia, and 11% in Vietnam. Laos was also found to have the highest rate in the region of stunting in children under five years of age, which stands at a staggering 43.8%. As the population continues to grow, food insecurity is likely to worsen. This is already pushing villagers to take great risks in attempting to conduct UXO clearance themselves and farm land which may be contaminated.

Whilst it is true that geographical constraints have historically restricted agricultural development in Laos, it is equally undeniable that the widespread presence of UXO – rendering hundreds of square kilometres of farmland unusable – is a decisive factor in explaining the difficulties endured by Laotian farmers and the poor performance of the country’s agricultural economy.

Secondly, UXO acts as an impediment to the provision of critical infrastructure. Laos’ geographical features – notably its mountainous terrain, dense jungles and lack of coastline – unfortunately serve as natural barriers to construction and free-flowing trade, yet the presence of UXO again compounds these problems. As a landlocked nation, Laos depends on overland transportation to move goods around the country, yet UXO contamination makes the construction of transport routes more dangerous and time-consuming than almost anywhere else on the planet. Land must be extensively surveyed and painstakingly cleared before construction work can begin, lessening the incentive for foreign investment in infrastructure projects.

As a result of UXO, Laos is desperately lacking in adequate road and rail links, leaving vast areas of the country isolated and disconnected from the main urban centres of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. This makes it difficult for goods to be transported to and from the countryside, leaving many rural areas to sink deeper into poverty whilst the cities prosper.

Large construction projects also face considerable delays and extra costs as a result of UXO contamination. For example, construction of the 1,075-megawatt, 350-metre tall Nam Theun II Dam, completed in 2010, was only able to get underway after three years of prior UXO removal work costing almost $17 million. The Dam project provides just one example of the many instances where additional costs have been incurred to build on UXO-contaminated land.

Thirdly, UXO has placed a huge burden on the healthcare system in Laos. There are more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents across the country, most of whom have some degree of disability and will require support for the rest of their lives. The most common injuries sustained are the loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss and shrapnel wounds. It is estimated that 40% of survivors require limb amputation, leading Laos to have one of the highest rates of disability globally. In the heavily-contaminated Xieng Khouang province alone, there are more than five-thousand disabled residents. The high amputation rate results from the majority of incidents occurring in remote, inaccessible areas, meaning that professional medical attention is often several hours away.

In the past 20 years, UXO-Lao has made more than 11,000 risk education visits to villages in the most heavily-contaminated areas, warning 3 million Laotians of the dangers of UXO (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The strain placed on Laos’ fragile healthcare system is overbearing. Many facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the severity of injuries in the immediate aftermath of an accident; for example, blood transfusions are often not possible in rural clinics, meaning that blood loss, rather than the injury itself, is a leading cause of death amongst UXO victims. In the longer-term, survivors require years of physical rehabilitation, psychological counselling, and custom-made devices to replace missing limbs.

Survivors face difficulty in resuming their normal lives, and households are plunged into poverty as families become unable to rely on the productivity of the main breadwinner. Relatives are forced to give up work to help care for injured family members, whilst children often stop attending school and instead seek employment to replace lost income.

The poverty-inducing effects of blast injuries and the additional burden placed on health services exacerbates the negative impacts of UXO on development. A high rate of disability means a depleted workforce, whilst families are weighed down under the burden of care, leaving tens-of-thousands of Laotians unable to contribute towards economic growth.

In recent years the UXO problem has been addressed with greater urgency, alongside a growing recognition that UXO poses a threat to development. In September 2016, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon inaugurated a new sustainable development goal for Laos, entitled Lives Safe from UXO: Remove the UXO Obstacle to National Development. This initiative – known as SDG18 – aims to further reduce casualties, address the needs of victims and clear the highest-risk areas by 2030.

Last year the government also announced plans to carry-out a nationwide UXO survey, aiming to produce a reliable estimate of contamination across the country by 2021. This will enable the most heavily-contaminated areas to be prioritized and facilitate closer co-ordination between UXO-Lao, international NGOs and private sector firms.

The most significant boost to clearance efforts however came last September, when then-US president Barack Obama announced a $90million funding package to be spread over the next three years, dwarfing previous US commitments. In a speech in Vientiane – during his historic first visit to Laos by a sitting US leader – President Obama acknowledged the harm inflicted by the bombing campaign, stating: ‘‘I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.’’

President Obama visited Laos in September 2016, pledging $90 million in funding to aid clearance efforts over the next three years (Image Source: White House Archives)

The successful visit followed a period of sustained engagement with Laos as part of the previous administration’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia, in which the US sought closer alliances with ASEAN member states as a counter to China’s growing influence in the region. However, Donald Trump does not appear to view Southeast Asia as such a high priority, prompting concerns over future UXO funding and raising questions over whether the US commitment to ‘‘help Laos heal’’ will be a long-term one.

Over the last two decades, steady progress has been made in tackling the UXO threat in Laos. The US has finally recognized the harmful legacy of the covert bombing campaign it conducted during the Vietnam War, which was overwhelmingly disproportionate in terms of its devastating long-term impact on civilians. In the last few years, greater engagement and funding has enabled clearance operations to move forward at a faster pace. In humanitarian terms, the recent intensification of clearance work has brought dramatic improvements: casualty numbers have reduced to an all-time low, and the majority of the rural population are now aware of the dangers posed by UXO.

Yet there remains an awfully long way to go. Four decades on from the US’ ‘Secret War’, its humanitarian legacy may be fading; but its developmental legacy persists. Despite recent economic growth, Laos still lags behind its neighbours and remains amongst the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. Given the painfully slow and careful nature of the work required to clear even the smallest area of land, UXO contamination will continue to pose a severe impediment to Laos’ development for decades to come. The widespread presence of UXO compounds the natural constraints imposed by Laos’ mountainous geography, denying it the opportunity to lift itself out of poverty and join Southeast Asia’s growing band of middle-income countries.

The ongoing experience of Laos serves as a painful reminder of the potential for conflicts to kill, maim and hold back development long after they have been consigned to the history books. Given the fact that only 2% of contaminated land has been made safe since clearance activities began more than 20 years ago, further international engagement and funding reassurances will be needed if there is to be a sustained, long-term effort to tackle the crippling legacy of UXO in Laos.