UXO decontamination in Vietnam an uphill task

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An unexploded bomb unearthed in the garden of a resident's house in the north-central province of Quang Tri, which has recorded the highest number of deaths and injuries caused by unexploded bombs and landmines

The Americans lost 58,000 lives in the Vietnam War.

Vietnamese have lost 42,000 lives to the war after it ended in 1975, to unexploded bombs dropped on the country, official figures show. More than three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed during the war.

At least 62,000 people have been injured by unexploded ordnances (UXOs), according to government statistics, and the fatalities and injuries continue to violently disrupt lives in the country.

Officials say only a small portion of the land contaminated with war-era bombs and mines has been cleared in Vietnam so far.

"The contamination of bombs and unexploded ordnance is still very heavy in Vietnam," Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said at an international seminar Monday (December 4) that looked at ways to deal with the problem.

"Accidents and casualties have continued to take a toll on the people, particularly the children, every day and every hour on a nationwide scale," Dung said.

About 6.6 million hectares (16.3 million acres) of land, more than 20 percent of the country's total surface area, has been affected by UXOs left behind by the Vietnam War, official figures show.

But only 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) or 5 percent of the contaminated area has been cleared so far, letting the UXOs continue their killing spree.

Experts have estimated that it would take hundreds of years and billions of dollars to clear Vietnam of leftover bombs, shells and mines.

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Vietnam launched a UXO action program in 2010 aiming to remove all the explosives on around 1.3 million hectares, equal to 20 percent of the estimated UXO zones nationwide, by 2025. The plan is set to cost $595 million in the next five years

"A much greater effort is needed to make Vietnam truly safe, and it should not be the responsibility of the Vietnamese government alone," said American Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam War veteran who has worked on humanitarian programs in Vietnam for more than 15 years.

Christopher Hodges, the US Embassy spokesman in Vietnam, said US assistance for mine action in Vietnam has totaled over $62 million to date.

"The goal of US support for mine action in Vietnam is clear to enable a brighter future for Vietnam and its people," Hodges said. "We look forward to continued cooperation with Vietnam's government and the NGO community."

Searcy said that the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions, offers the best option for Vietnam to engage other nations and get funding, technical assistance, and broad support for the victims of bombs and mines.

Both Vietnam and the US, which used around 16 million tons of weaponry in the war, have not ratified the convention.

"Other nations have demonstrated their willingness to help," Searcy said. "As long as Vietnam is not part of the treaty, Vietnam will not receive the priority consideration from other nations that [it] certainly deserves."

Vietnam has been cautious about joining it because of some tough tasks laid down by the convention, including clearing affected areas within 10 years and destroying stockpiles of the weapon within eight.

The Vietnamese government has argued that it would be tough for it to address the UXO legacy alone with such a pressing deadline. It has maintained that the burden should not be placed on Vietnam's shoulders, given that it has been a victim of a UXO problem that was created by other countries.

Thomas Nash, coordinator for the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition, an international coalition of around 350 NGOs working in some 90 countries to encourage action against cluster bombs, said Vietnam has a choice to make in this regard.

"Either it embraces the global community that rejects mines and cluster bombs and works to clear the remnants and assist victims through the 1997 and 2008 ban treaties, or it persists with the inadequate, piecemeal path outside these international frameworks," Nash said.

"Evidence from other countries makes it clear which choice will most help the Vietnamese people affected by mines and cluster bombs."

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