26 Sep 2014

What to do with underwater leftovers of war?

Rob H writes:*

In the past weeks I have been involved in an NGO called the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM). IDUM is an NGO in The Hague to work on furthering the development of an international strategy on the issue of underwater munitions dump sites.

Throughout and after world war I and II large amounts of munitions were dumped in seas both territorial and extraterritorial waters (here's a video). Ranging from conventional munitions, such as bombs, bullets and mines, to chemical and nuclear waste and weapons. These dump sites are ticking time bombs, as they can literally blow up in someone's face when discovered and because they slowly leak toxic materials into the environment. Studies have yet to confirm the full extent of the problem but on specific sites such as in the Northern European seas there is evidence of toxic materials leaking into the marine ecosystems.

Operations are being undertaken to clean up these side effects of war but far too little is being done. Firstly, because finding and clearing the dump sites is a difficult and costly task. But the foremost reason is that the dumping of these munitions and the sites themselves are a politically sensitive topic which states don't want to bring back to the surface.

So who's to pay? Cleaning up this mess is estimated to cost billions of dollars. The direct victims are mostly fisheries that see fish stocks depleting and people being harmed by munitions while the responsibility lays with the states. Moreover the dumping itself was done by secretive military agencies so there are no clear records. So should states be responsible for their previous governments' war leftovers? Or should we assume that those responsible were not well informed on the potential danger of such dumping?

A good example for this problem are landmines. The demining and related programs depend on private and public voluntary donations but have a strong base of multilateral agencies and NGO's. This has been much more successful because of international recognition of the problem and the commitment of states mobilizing clearing efforts.

To reduce the number of underwater munitions there has to be international commitment and recognition of the problem. Firstly an internationally binding treaty has to be signed specifically condemning underwater munitions. This will open the way for more funding and technical development to clean our seas of underwater munitions.

Bottom Line: When the world faces a problem collectively and responsible parties don't clean up their mess there is need for open international commitment to kick start investment in solutions.

* Please comment on these posts from my microeconomics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.