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The Environmental Legacy of Explosive Remnants of War

From the desk of Linsey Cottrell Environmental Policy Officer at the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), and Kristin Holme Obrestad Senior Climate and Environmental Advisor at Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA)

Between 2002 and 2021, around 11% of primary forest was lost in Laos. The effects of deforestation can also impact communities impacted by explosive ordnance, increasing the risk of flooding and soil erosion. Credit: Norwegian People’s Aid Lao PDR

The damage caused by armed conflicts extends beyond that caused by the fighting itself and weapons used. As well as the risk from serious injury or death, the remains of cluster munitions, landmines and other explosive ordnance also have an environmental impact which requires focus.

Explosive ordnance can impact the environment in several ways. This includes direct impacts to soil quality and local ecosystems, as well as potential impacts from undertaking clearance activities to remove explosive ordnance remaining in the ground. Environmental degradation undermines human health, livelihoods, and security by impacting the provision of ecosytem services upon which people rely. These ecosystem services include providing water, food, medicine, and raw materials, in addition to supporting biodiveristy, regulating the climate, and supporting cultural and spiritual wellbeing.

Multiple environmental pressures exist for Lao PDR. A lack of waste infrastructure and poor waste management practices cause pollution and health issues for local people. Credit: Norwegian People’s Aid Lao PDR

Our planet now faces threats from the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss. and pollution. Many conflict-affected countries are located in areas considered among the most susceptible to the effects of climate change and many conflicts have also occurred in some of the world’s richest places for biodiversity. Between 1950 and 2000, more than eighty percent of major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hotspots. The use of particular weapons–including defoliants, such as Agent Orange–can also result in the chemical contamination of soil and water, with abandoned explosive ordnance at risk of corroding over time and releasing toxic explosive residues and metals into the environment.

When it comes to clearing and addressing the legacy of explosive ordnance, it is critical that environmental issues are addressed, with measures in place to reduce the environmental impact from any clearance activities and where possible, supporting environmental improvement and adaptation measures for those communities affected by climate-related impacts and environmental degradation.

The Mekong Region

Countries in the Mekong region are already experiencing the effects of climate change, with the region enduring increased rainfall, flooding, landslides, heatwaves, storms and other extreme weather events. Like many countries around the world, the Mekong region, especially areas affected by conflict and contaminated with explosive ordnance, remain ill-prepared to adapt to these climate-related impacts.

Vietnam is predicted to be one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and an estimated nineteen percent of Vietnam’s land surface remains affected by explosive ordnance. This will increase land-use pressures, since predicted sea-level rises due to climate change could affect around 12 million people living in low-lying deltas. Areas of Vietnam are also rich in biodiversity. For example, the central Thua Thien Hue province is ecologically rich and diverse, with 128 kilometres of coastline, 22,000 hectares of lagoons, and more than 200,000 hectares of forest. This means that explosive ordnance survey and clearance activities must be mindful of ecologically important areas and ensure that the activities do not adversely impact local wildlife and habitats. As well as the legacy from explosive ordnance, the province and the district of A Luoi was also heavily affected by the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange herbicide from 1961 to 1971. Alongside the massive ecological harm caused by the defoliants at the time, the herbicide contained the highly toxic and persistent dioxin 2,3,7,8 TCDD. After 50 years, dioxin levels in the environment continue to present significant risks to people and the environment.

A Norwegian People’s Aid surveyor searches a coffee plantation in Laos for explosive ordnance, using a handheld metal detector. Manual techniques can reduce impacts from clearance activities. Credit: Norwegian People’s Aid Lao PDR

The Lao PDR, the world’s most heavily contaminated country by cluster munitions, is also predicted to be among the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Without action, over 80,000 people are expected to be annually exposed to river flooding by the 2030s and significant adaptation measures are required to address anticipated adverse impacts on the growing season for staple food crops. As well as other countries in the Mekong region, Lao PDR has also experienced high rates of deforestation caused by land use pressures, agriculture, and the exploitation of timber. Between 2002 and 2021, around 11% of primary forest was lost in Laos. Trees help to protect soils, reducing soil erosion and the risk of landslides, and help to reduce the risk of flooding by retaining and intersecting surface run-off. Other environmental pressures in Lao PDR include the absence of adequate waste management and the huge problem with the local dumping or burning of waste.

Understanding the local context is of particular importance when undertaking survey and clearance activities for explosive ordnance since the environmental challenges will vary across regions. Climate change may also influence the prioritization of areas which need to be surveyed and cleared, and knowledge of regional climate trends and impacts is needed.

Many areas impacted by explosive ordnance are remote and may be located within or near ecologically important habitats. Credit: Norwegian People’s Aid Lao PDR

Better environmental outcomes

Until fairly recently, the links between clearing explosive ordnance and the environment have not been fully examined or regarded as a key priority. In 2017, the International Mine Action Standard (IMAS 07.13) was issued to help avoid or mitigate the potentially negative impact of clearance operations on the environment. The importance and relevance of the environment is gaining traction, with practical environmental initiatives underway by several mine action organization, increased donor interest and updates to the IMAS 07.13 already in progress.

Mine action organizations undertaking survey and clearance activities are particularly well placed to support communities in improving environmental outcomes and building links with regional environmental partners. Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) are working alongside partners in both Lao PDR and Vietnam. In Lao PDR, NPA has been working with Zero Waste Laos on waste management and to support their Youth Climate Action initiative. In Vietnam, NPA’s partnership with the Union of Friendship Organization in Thua Thien Hue Province (Hue FO) has involved a range of initiatives, including a soil sampling pilot to assess contamination and land use options.

Mine action organizations are in a unique position, since they have strong community links, build high levels of trust, and have a good understanding of local needs. There is now ambition for increased support from donors to enable more initiatives which can further integrate environmental protection, biodiversity, and climate action for conflict-affected regions.

Linsey Cottrell is the Environmental Policy Officer at the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), which is a UK charity focusing on the environmental impacts of wars and military activities.

Kristin Holme Obrestad is the Senior Climate and Environmental Advisor at Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA). NPA undertakes mine action and disarmament projects around the world.

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