The rate of accidents at munitions storage sites has risen to unprecedented levels in 2011, despite a growing international commitment to assist countries in managing their weapons and ammunition stockpiles.
“During the first ten months of 2011, the average number of explosions has increased to more than three per month - the highest rate recorded in a calendar year,” said the Small Arms Survey (SAS), a Geneva-based NGO monitoring small arms and armed violence.
“It is unclear whether the problem is getting worse or reporting of incidents is improving. What is clear is that the number of explosions is not decreasing despite efforts to address their causes.”
Nearly all countries have one or more facilities for the storage of weapons and ammunition, which require constant surveillance by a technically skilled workforce, careful monitoring of the humidity and temperature levels of the stockpile, and the safe disposal of ammunition that has reached its “sell-by date”.
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Pilar Reina, an SAS researcher, told IRIN that “countries tend to consider surplus of ammunition as an asset rather than a liability, and, among other reasons, very often this explains why they do not prioritise Physical Security and Stockpile Management [PSSM].”
Apart from better reporting of incidents, she cited three possible reasons for the increase in Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites (UEMS): aging ammunition, some of which dates back to the First World War; the dearth of technical and stockpile management expertise; which contribute to the failure to destroy unstable munitions stocks.
The first edition of the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG), published by the United Nations on 1 October 2011, acknowledges that “in almost all post-conflict environments, and in many developing countries, a physical risk exists to individuals and communities from the presence of abandoned, damaged or inappropriately stored and managed stockpiles of ammunition and explosives.”
Countries of concern
The guidelines single out eastern Europe and Africa as having countries of concern, where stocks were surplus to “requirement and contain components that are well beyond the safe storage life”.
Adrian Wilkinson, director of the British-based security consultancy company Explosive Capabilities, who pioneered the monitoring of UEMS and authored the IATG, told IRIN that the reporting of incidents had improved since what was once a “one-man operation” had been transferred to the SAS, but doubted this was the only reason that known incidents were increasing.
As a rule of thumb, ammunition has a shelf life of about 20 years under correct storage conditions. After that it becomes either unreliable or unstable. Many storage sites in Africa and the developing world contain ammunition left over from “the days of the Cold War”, Wilkinson said, which ended just over two decades ago.
One of the main risks to UEMS is unstable ammunition propellant, especially in mortar rounds, which are universally popular weapons in most arsenals of the world’s military forces.
Mortar propellant - usually based on the explosives, nitro-glycerine and nitro-cellulose - has about a two percent stabilizer to make it safe to store and use, but all munitions degrade over time and their expected lifespan is primarily determined by storage conditions. In well-managed storage sites, inspectors test and dispose of ammunition at risk of “auto-catalytic ignition”, or spontaneous combustion.
Since 1998, incidents of UEMS have occurred in more than one-third of all UN member states and on every continent apart from Australia and Antarctica. The SAS said on its website that a single event “can result in dozens of dead, hundreds of injured, and thousands of displaced. The damage to infrastructure can be extensive, covering many square kilometres. And the loss of economic activity can top tens of millions of dollars and have long-term ramifications on livelihoods and the environment.”
International efforts to deal with the problem have increased in recent years. The Regional Approach to Stockpile Reduction (RASR) includes nine southeastern European countries and seeks to “address the threats posed by excess, unstable, loosely secured or otherwise at-risk stockpiles of conventional weapons and munitions”, Reina said.
She noted that UEMS also “lends itself to diversion and the facilitation of corruption, both causes for proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons”.
Cost-saving measures at munitions storage facilities have often been spectacularly counter-productive. On 28 April 2000 an explosion at a storage site in Bharatpur, India, destroyed ammunition worth about US$90 million. The cause for the blast was cited as a fire, after grass had been left uncut to save money on maintenance. Five personnel were killed and seven others injured, with extensive damage in 20 surrounding villages.
Determining the cause of an unplanned blast is always difficult, as the primary witnesses more often than not perish, allowing the authorities to apportion blame elsewhere.
In January 2002 an explosion at the Ikeja ammunition depot in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, killed more than 1,100 people - including people who drowned in the city’s canal system while fleeing the blast - injured a further 5,000 and displaced 20,000 from their homes. The blast was officially blamed on a nearby fire, but unofficially the cause was put as the deterioration of ammunition stocks.
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Urbanisation is also increasingly putting civilians at risk. The Malhazine ammunition dump was built by the former Soviet Union in 1984 on the outskirts of the Mozambican capital, Maputo, but the area has since become a bustling neighbourhood.
In March 2007, high temperatures and negligent storage practices at Malhazine were cited as the cause for an explosion that killed more than 100 people and injured over 500. The deaths and injuries continued after the blast because munitions had been hurled into the densely populated neighbourhood and exploded days, and months, after the event.
Wilkinson said as a rough estimate, about 30 percent of munitions fail to explode in the initial blast and are flung outside of the immediate blast area. The force of the explosion often arms the ammunition, making it very sensitive to initiation if disturbed, and so should be treated as unexploded ordnance. This complicates clean-up operations, heightens the risk for personnel, and increases the expense.
An incident in 2005, after a fire at a munitions storage facility for the Russian pacific fleet on the Kamchatka Peninsula, deposited ordnance 8 kilometres from the site of the blast.
In 2007 in the Mozambican port city of Beira, three people were killed by unexploded ordnance ejected from an explosion at a munitions facility five years earlier.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions