New study says cluster bombs have cost Southern farmers at least $22 million. Lives and limbs have also been lost as many keep working despite danger

BEIRUT: Cluster bomb contamination has caused at least $22.6 million in agricultural losses to South Lebanon's farmers, according to a report released in late May.


BEIRUT: Cluster bomb contamination has caused at least $22.6 million in agricultural losses to South Lebanon's farmers, according to a report released in late May.
The report, issued by the London-based advocacy group Landmine Action, says that the conflict between Lebanon and Israel in July-August 2006 contaminated 4.8 percent of the agricultural land in Southern Lebanon, rendering it unsafe to use. Despite the dangers posed by cluster munitions in this area, the report estimates that between 15 percent and 30 percent of contaminated land has been used in advance of it being cleared.
"People need their land; it's their main source of livelihood. Based on that people risk their life and still use their land even though they know there are cluster munitions," says Dalya Farran, the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center's (UNMACC) media and clearance officer.
An essential characteristic of the 2006 conflict was the "extensive and intensive use of cluster munitions," by Israeli forces, the report says. Cluster bombs, dropped by planes or launched by artillery or rockets, explode above their targets, blanketing an area the size two to three soccer fields with smaller submunitions. Many of these submunitions fail to explode on contact, contaminating the land for decades unless properly removed.
In May, despite pressure from the US, more than 100 countries signed a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs, vowing to destroy their stockpiles.
The treaty was spurred in part by international outrage over the ongoing deadliness of the bombs in Lebanon.
Since a cessation of hostilities went into effect in August 2006, cluster bombs have killed or injured over 250 people, according to the report. Over 100 of those casualties came in the first two months following the war. And while far fewer deaths have occurred of late, people continue to die as a result of the munitions. On Thursday, a 39-year-old farmer died near the town of Marjayoun after stepping on a unexploded submunition.
Farmers use a range of techniques to identify and disarm munitions, including burning land in order to identify contaminated areas, shooting munitions, spraying them with expandable foam, dumping them in ditches and ponds, and paying laborers to collect them, the reports says. Agricultural activity and tending livestock have both proved to be deadly activities for many, but the deliberate "tampering" with the devices is the most common cause of death, according to the report.
"The persons actually touch, move, or handle the cluster bomb. They try to deactivate it," says Farran, adding that this type of interaction occurs most frequently when farmers attempt to clear their land of cluster bombs themselves or pay workers to remove the munitions, rather then wait for professionals to reach the site.
UNMACC, in cooperation with the Lebanese Army and international organizations, has been working fast to clear land of unexploded cluster bombs. In the period up to the end of December 2006, 94,544 munitions were destroyed as part of emergency-response efforts. Since then, clearing efforts have shifted from a focus on emergency response to the systematic clearance of contaminated areas, destroying an additional 47,000 submunitions by March 2008, according to the report.
Twenty months after operations began, about half of all contaminated land has been cleared, according to the report. But with 60 teams and over 970 sites, this pace is still not fast enough to convince all farmers to wait before returning to their lands, Farran says. Accordingly, UNMACC has prioritized the clearing of agricultural lands, Farren adds. Efforts have been further hindered by the Israels' refusal to say where they dropped cluster bombs or how many they dropped.
"Although the UN requested the information from Israel, up until now we haven't received [it]," Farran says.
UNMACC relies instead on reports from farmers and their own observations as to where munitions were dropped. If they do not find new sites between now and the end of the year, the remaining areas should present a minor problem, Farran says.
The report also attempts to measure the monetary cost to society of lives lost and wounded by cluster munitions. Using two different measurements, it calculates a lower estimate of $10 million and an upper estimate of $86 million. The report says that by the time all munitions have been cleared, clearance operations will have cost $120.4 million, or four times the estimated cost of responding to NATO's use of cluster munitions in Kosovo in 1999. Most of those costs have been paid for by the UN and donations from the United Arab Emirates.
But even before all operations are complete, many desperate farmers will continue to use their land.
"We tell them not to do it," says Farran. But "many of them choose to take the risk."


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