Crusade to eliminate ‘ticking time bombs’ sitting beneath world’s waters
“We all have our own battles to fight and this is mine.” These are the fighting words of Terrance Long, founder and director of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM).
Based in The Hague, Long’s organisation is on a mission to rid the world of “millions” of tonnes of weapons rotting in seas and oceans across the globe.
The world’s waters, says Long, have become a dangerous “garbage dump” for these unwanted military munitions, ranging from highly explosive conventional ordnances to chemical weapons.
It’s a stark warning that Long doesn’t attempt to sugar coat. “If the underwater munitions aren’t neutralized or recovered from our waters in the near term then the ocean will die and we will cease to exist on this planet.”
A retired Canadian military engineer and an expert in explosive ordnance disposal, Long spent 20 years, both in the army and later for various NGOs, clearing land mines.
It was this experience that led Long to believe the same work could and should be done for the same weapons sitting at the bottom of the water.
“Because I’m a weapons expert, in my own mind I’m obligated to address this issue. There is something I can do about it, so I will.”
It’s a problem that has been ticking away for over 70 years. As Long explains, weapons, like most things, have an expiration date and need to be disposed of. By the end of the Second World War a solution was needed and during the Potsdam Conference of 1945 an agreement was made to rid stockpiled weapons by dumping them into the water, most notably the Baltic Sea.
According to Long, “That’s when a number of countries from around the globe started dumping their munitions, dating back from the First World World and continued doing so up until the 1970s.”
One of the biggest issues now facing Long and the IDUM is locating exactly where all the world’s munition dumping sites are located and exactly how many weapons there are.
“What we do know is that there are 400,000 tonnes of chemical munitions in the Baltic Sea alone. On a global scale, we estimate there are more than 10,000 dumping sites of chemical and conventional weapons.”
According to Long, these corroding weapons are posing an ever increasing danger to the environment and to us.
“They’re full of contaminates like lead, mercury, picric acid and TNT. Most are known carcinogens that we now have in our marine environment, that will persist there for 10,000 years. Our oceans cannot sustain that.”
He continued: “This really is a ticking time bomb. My greatest fear is that our international community will allow them to corrode to where we no longer have a means to detect the contaminates when the metals are gone.”
Despite the dire warnings, Long stresses there is hope: “This is absolutely a problem we can fix…in most cases if we remove the source contaminant, we remove the problem.
“But this issue needs to be addressed on a global scale, with a collective response, right now, with an urgent United Nations conference on all underwater weapons.”
In order to do this, Long and the IDUM continue to work for the creation of an internationally binding treaty on all classes of underwater munitions. The end game, says Long, is all about “protecting our oceans and saving them for our children.”
Text: Susannah Palk