Costly legacy of unexploded bombs

As a public servant, I am confronted every day by serious problems without clear solutions. Once in awhile, however, I come upon a problem that actually can be fixed, if only we summon the necessary will and resources. The scourge of unexploded ordnance in Laos - remnants of a war that ended decades ago but still kills innocent civilians - is just such a problem.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Laos in the first delegation composed entirely of congressmen whose roots are from the Asia-Pacific region. We were there to address a number of foreign-policy issues, but I will never forget our visit with officials responsible for overseeing bomb-clearance work in Laos.What I learned shocked me.

As part of its efforts during the Vietnam War, the United States began a nine-year bombing campaign in Laos in 1964 that ultimately dropped 260 million cluster bombs on the country - the most heavily bombed country in history. That's more than 2.5 million tons of munitions - more than what the U.S. dropped in World War II on Germany and Japan combined.

When the bombs hit the ground, many of them did not blow up as designed but instead remained hidden - waiting for an unsuspecting farmer or student. Of the 75 million bombs that failed to detonate, less than 1 percent have been cleared. At least 25,000 people have been killed or injured by these bombs in the 35 years following the end of the bombing campaign. Today, an average of 300 Lao people are injured or killed every year by these weapons.

The economy has become a casualty, too. Laos' economy is almost entirely agricultural (rice, in particular) yet one-third of the land remains littered with unexploded ordnance. Clearance costs and security concerns continue to pose a barrier to farmers large and small, leaving fertile soil untilled.

I was stunned by these facts but also heartened by the response.

During our meetings in Laos, we learned that about 1,000 workers are destroying ordnance and leading education programs throughout the country. The bomb-removal program in Laos is effective and efficient, called the "gold standard" by the State Department's own weapons-removal-and-abatement office. The removal process works, but it is expensive - and more funding is needed now to prevent more casualties.

This month, under the leadership of Samoa's nonvoting delegate, Rep. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment, the House will be conducting hearings on the legacy of the U.S. bombing of Laos. The Foreign Affairs Committee will hear from representatives of the State Department as well as nonprofits about the extent of the problem, the progress that has been made so far to address it and the U.S. contribution to that effort.

So far, the United States has contributed an average of about $3 million a year to bomb-removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the U.S. spent more than $2 million a day (about $17 million in today's dollars) dropping the bombs.

We have a moral obligation to fix this problem, andwe need more funds to fix it. This year, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I requested $7 million in the fiscal 2011 budget (sustaining or increasing this figure over the coming years) and urged the State Department to make a sustained commitment to bomb removal in Laos. Just a small increase in U.S. funding would have a huge impact for the people suffering from the hidden remnants of the Vietnam War in Laos.

During our visit, we committed to assist the country in its bomb-removal effort. It's time we followed through on that commitment and solved this problem once and for all

Rep Michael Honda, California Democrat, chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.