Following a series of explosions at a munitions dump in Congo’s capital Brazzaville on Sunday 4th March, Handicap International is sending a team to the city to respond to the emergency situation. A decontamination expert will be responsible for securing the danger zone and raising the awareness of the civilian population and teams working in the area about the dangers of unexploded ordnance. The Congolese capital is particularly heavily polluted: munitions and grenades have been projected across a range of several square miles in a densely-populated civilian area. This tragic accident demonstrates the need for broader interventions to address the issue of unused munitions being kept in storage dumps which no longer meet the required safety standards for storing this type of equipment.
Handicap International is dispatching an emergency team to the Republic of Congo. The explosions at the munitions dumps on Sunday in a popular part of Brazzaville left 180 dead and 1,340 injured, figures announced by Georges Moyen, the Congolese Health Minister on Tuesday.
The dumps contained small-calibre weapons and munitions. One of them is still inaccessible as removing the rubble will require heavy lifting equipment. The second is accessible but densely contaminated by large numbers of highly unstable, unexploded grenades. The buildings collapsed on top of the munitions. Those which did not explode were projected in a 360° radius, over a range of 2.5 to 3.7 miles (4-6 km). They are either scattered across the ground or buried in the rubble, and pose a potential threat to the thousands of civilians who are raking through the remains trying to recover the few items spared by the explosions. The zone is so heavily polluted with unexploded ordnance that even members of the reconnaissance team have not yet set foot in the area.
Philippe Houliat, a mine clearance expert, is heading out to Brazzaville for Handicap International. His mission: Mark the hazardous areas, identify the risks from munitions which have landed close to people’s homes, and raise the awareness of the civilian population and the teams working directly in the area about the dangers of these arms.
“It is important to explain to people the right action to take when they come across an unidentified object: Do not approach or touch the object, mark the hazardous area and inform the authorities or Handicap International’s teams on site. This prevention work is vital in the current context, in order to save lives and stop the already dramatic loss of human life from escalating in the weeks to come,” explains Philippe Houliat.
According to the needs identified and the commitments made by the different humanitarian stakeholders in place, Handicap International may undertake decontamination work in the affected region in the weeks to come.
Unfortunately this disaster is not an isolated case. Numerous developing countries have munitions dumps located in city centres, in densely-populated neighbourhoods. The state of these facilities means they do not always meet the security requirements set out under international rules. These stockpiles of obsolete and often unusable munitions then become a potential danger, for the surrounding population but also for the workers operating on the sites on a daily basis.
Handicap International already has field experience of this issue. Since April 2011 the organisation has been working in Mauritania under the framework of the “Partnership for Peace” programme to support the government through the process of dismantling 11 munitions dumps which no longer meet the required safety standards.