The Problem

Whats the scale of the Explosive Remnants of War problem?

In the year 2000 Bill Clinton was the first United States president to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended and as a gesture of good will he released the American bombing data from the Vietnam War. This data showed that between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped a combined total estimate of 11 billion kilograms of bombs on Vietnam; Cambodia and Laos PDR. Of those it is estimated 30% didn’t go off and are still in or on the ground in those countries.

These bombs were designed to do a specific job, kill, maim and injure their targets………..unfortunately almost 50 years later their still doing their job.

This is just the bombing data and doesn’t take into account all of the landmines laid, rocket propelled grenades, artillery and other munitions fired by soldiers that didn’t go off and is still on or in the ground there. It also doesn’t take into account all of the munitions located on sunken barges in the rivers systems there. In Cambodia alone there is estimated to be over 200 sunken ammunition barges in the Tonle Sap and Mekong river systems. These barges can contain up to thousands of tons of military ordnance.

To give you an idea of the impact of this……Since 1975 approximately 221,000.00 innocent people have been killed and injured in these three countries just from explosive remnants of war.

US bombing data map showing area of contamination in Vietnam/Cambodia and Laos.

What are Landmines?       
A landmine is a munition designed to be placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area and can be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person or a vehicle.

Anti-Personel and Anti-Tank Mines.


Landmines are generally divided into two main types – anti-personnel and anti-tank (anti-vehicle). They have four main parts:

  1. the outer structure, which can be made of either metal, plastic, Bakelite, rubber, or wood;

  2. the fuse or firing mechanism;

  3. the detonator and;

  4. high explosives.

They can be activated by direct pressure from above, by pressure put on a wire or filament attached to a pull switch, or even simply by the proximity of a person within a predetermined distance.

Landmines are predominantly round in shape and their size can range from the diameter of a dessert spoon to a tea cup saucer or, in the case of anti-tank landmines, as large as a dinner plate.

They are designed to have differing effects, with some containing thousands of pieces of shrapnel, designed to shoot out great distances, while others have been made from nylons and plastics with a minimum amount of metal, making them difficult to detect using metal detectors.

If victims survive triggering a landmine, the explosion often causes severe injury, both physical and psychological and they face a long, difficult and painful recovery. Many survivors suffer from burns, blindness, deafness, paralysis and loss of limbs as a result of the explosion. A major concern is that young children make up more than one quarter of the total accident victims reported since 1973. Unfortunately, the percentage of children involved in accidents is increasing.


How do Landmines work?

Depending on the type of mine:

• Blast landmines are pressure-activated and generally cause injuries from the explosive detonating;

• Fragmentation landmines contain shrapnel (pieces on metal) which are fired out into victims when the mine detonates;

• Bounding fragmentation landmines jump out of the ground to approximately waist level when activated and fire thousands of deadly fragments, in some cases to a radius of around 100 meters;

• Anti-tank (or anti-vehicle) landmines are larger and take greater pressure to activate. They can rip through vehicles when detonated and cause devastating damage to drivers and passengers. These landmines take greater pressure to activate, but can be triggered by cars, trucks, tractors, or carts being towed by buffalo.


The way you detect and disable landmines.

There are number of methods utilised to detect and destroy landmines, these include manual de-miners (humans with metal detectors), mine detection dogs and mechanical machines. Often these methods are combined to take an integrated approach to some or all of the clearance.

Manual demining using metal detectors is by far the most common method of clearing landmines. Mechanical demining and dog support have limitations and need to be more focused in the right areas to maximise their impact during clearance.

Other techniques are also used to speed up the process, such as non-technical and partial surveying, which involves verifying that no mines exist and allowing the land to be released for agriculture or building purposes (this is referred to as land release). This method defines the area where mines are present, meaning fewer areas requiring inch-by-inch clearance. Unfortunately sometimes landmines are laid completely randomly, so every inch of the suspect area needs to be cleared to make it safe.


How difficult is it to detect and disable landmines?

Different types of landmines pose different detection issues. Anti-tank mines are usually easier to detect due to them having a larger metal content. However, some can be fitted with anti-handling devices (booby traps) which are designed to initiate the mine if it is tampered with.

Many anti-personnel landmines are made of plastic and have minimal metal content (usually just a firing pin, and the metal jacket of a detonator). Hi-tech metal detectors are utilised to locate these landmines, but it is slow and painstaking work due to the care that must be taken, not only to locate the landmines but to ensure that 100% of the contaminated land is searched without missing any items.

Once the landmine has been detected, its type is identified, the next step is to usually place a small counter charge next to it and destroy it in situ, if this isn’t able to be done, the mine is made safe (disarmed) and destroyed at a later date. The location of the mine is placed onto a map or recorded via GPS marker and this is later provided to the countries Mine Action Authority for uploading onto a database recording all cleared areas.


What is the Mine Ban Treaty?

The Mine Ban Treaty was open for signature from 3 December 1997 until its entry into force on 1 March 1999. The Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention came into force in March 1999. Signatories have agree that they will not use, develop, manufacture, stockpile or trade in anti-personnel landmines and that they will clear minefields and destroy stockpiles. Remote controlled mines (such as Claymores) and anti-vehicle and anti-tank mines, which require a lot of pressure to detonate, are not included in the ban. Improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) that are victim-activated are considered to be anti-personnel mines and are banned under the treaty.

To date, 162 countries are States Parties to Mine Ban Treaty, (over 80% of the world’s countries). 35 countries have not yet joined the Treaty.


What is unexploded ordnance?

Ordnance means explosive weapons such as bombs, rockets, missiles, mortars and hand-grenades. Unexploded ordnance (often called UXO) refers to weapons that did not explode when they were used, but have the potential risk of detonation, sometimes many decades later.

Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).


How difficult is it to detect and disable UXO?

UXO is usually easier to locate than landmines for several reasons, the primary reason is that they contain more metal. Similar techniques are utilised to detect UXO (advanced metal detectors) but others types of detection, such as large loop scanners and magnometers are also employed, these allow for large areas to be cleared more quickly. Once the UXO is located, depending on its size/type and location, a determination will be made as to how best to dispose of it or make it safe. In some cases the explosives from the UXO may even be recycled to be utilised to destroy other UXO and Landmines.


Cluster munitions.

Cluster Bombs or cluster munitions, are weapons that can be dropped from the air by planes or fired from the ground. They are designed to open mid-air and release numerous explosive bomblets (sub-munitions) over a wide area. A single Cluster Bomb Unit (CBU) can contain hundreds of sub-munitions. Most explode immediately, but many don’t and later kill or maim innocent civilians long after a conflict has ended.

Cluster bomb and submunitions (golf ball size bomblets).


Bomblets are designed to pierce tank/APC armour and usually carry more explosives than anti-personnel landmines. Some bomblets look like balls, whilst others are the size and shape of a torch battery. Children often mistake them for toys, which usually has tragic results.

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are currently listed as three of the worst effected countries in the world for Cluster munitions contamination.


What is the Convention on Cluster Munitions?

The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted in May 2008, opened for signature in December 2008 and entered into force 1 August 2010. To date 114 countries have joined the convention, of which 86 are States Parties, and the remaining 28 states are signatories and have yet to ratify the convention. The convention bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions and, like the Mine Ban Treaty, places obligations on countries to clear affected areas and destroy stockpiles.


The River Systems.

As mentioned previously the US covert bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War confirmed the sinking of 200 Khmer Rouge ammunition barges on the Mekong and Tonle Sap river systems (these figures do not include ammunition barges sunk by the Khmer Rouge, Royal Cambodian armed forces and Vietnamese armed forces during the civil war). The majority of these barges contained hundreds of tons of military ordinance, ranging from landmines, hand grenades, artillery rounds to large aircraft bombs. This is just Cambodia, the numbers in Vietnam and Laos PDR are unknown, but estimated to be large.

This unexploded ordinance has created major issues, from fisherman pulling up military ordinance in their nets, which can detonate causing death or serious injury, to impoverished people scavenging for scrap metal to sell, again possibly causing death or injury. Another concern is the environment, as these munitions age, some rust often releasing toxic chemicals into the rivers.

The difficulties with clearing the river systems are many, first the sunken barge/vessel needs to be located, then divers need to be deployed to assess what is actually located on the barge/vessel.  This is no easy task for the divers, the river systems are all brown water, meaning that visibility underwater is zero, this combined with 40 something years of broken fishing lines, miscellaneous floating debris, fast flowing water and the fact that these river systems are like highways for boats, with villagers taking their products to market, makes this very dangerous work.

Once ERW is located on the barge/vessel by the divers then recovery work can commence. This can vary depending on the type and amount of ERW located on the barge/vessel and its location (whilst some of these barge/vessels are located near major towns, most are in remote rural areas, making the work all the more difficult).