Laos: Cluster Bombs and Access to Water


Some 80 million unexploded bombs lie undiscovered across Laos -- the deadly aftermath of America's "secret war" in Laos -- a CIA-led mission during the Vietnam War.

The operation was intended to destroy Vietnam's supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south of Laos, and consequently, to help the Laos government loyalists in the civil war against communist forces in the north.

Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs -- one of the heaviest aerial bombardments in history. Most of the these were cluster bombs, which split before impact, spreading hundreds of smaller bomblets -- known locally as "bombies." 

At present, less than 1% of the bombs have been removed, according to US-based NGO Legacies of War, which is leading the campaign to locate and defuse them.

In a CNN interview, Laos-born founder of Legacies of War, Channapha Khamvongsa laments, "We were all but forgotten here". But, as CNN reporter Rebecca Wright notes: "the people of Laos can't forget, as the "secret war" is still claiming victims."

According to this CNN report, more than 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the unexploded ordnance (UXOs) since the war ended, and currently, 50 people are maimed or killed every year. Sadly, children mistake the "bombies" for toys and accidentally discharge them as they toss the explosives around as balls. Farmers lose their limbs as they unexpectedly encounter the mines when ploughing the fields. For fear of losing life or limbs, rural Laotians have stopped expanding their agricultural activities, thus exacerbating poverty and malnutrition in one of the poorest economies. Unexploded bombs can have a devastating impact on villagers crossing fields to fetch water or taking livestock to watering holes. During the last 15 years, more than 900 people – nearly half of them children – are believed to have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in Laos (ICRC). 

U.S. aid to Laos has risen across the years, and in 2016, Congress approved $19.5 million for the removal of the bombs -- the highest amount granted thus far.

“Since 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Lao Red Cross have been helping to improve communities' access to water. In November, three water projects were completed in Southern Laos, providing year-round access to water for more than 3,000 villagers.” (ICRC website)

To add to the problem, "Laos may have both the largest percentage of Mekong’s water and the largest percentage of the overall river basin, but the critical source of the river, the Mekong headwaters, is located in China" (Kunze). Currently, the regional media are at odds in determining the cause of the low water levels. Without sufficient credible data to support "the assertions on any side, speculation is rampant. Many downstream river users, including farmers and fishermen, point fingers at the upstream dams in China. China has three dams on the Mekong (or Lancang as the river is called in China), with one more to be completed in 2012" (Kunze).


Kunze, Gretchen, A. World Water Day: Laos Hardest Hit by Mekong’s Falling Water Levels." 

    The Asia Foundation. 17 Mar. 2010. 

"Laos: Safe access to water saves lives." ICRC website. 30 Dec. 2015.

Wright, Rebecca. " ''My friends were afraid of me': What 80 million unexploded US bombs

    did to Laos." CNN. 06 Sept. 2016.