The climate crisis cuts across every aspect of life across the world, including mine action. Climate change impacts MAG’s work by exacerbating an environment of increasing global insecurity. At the same time, we cannot escape the impact of our work.
Destroying dangerous explosives and obsolete weapons and ammunition is vital for keeping communities safe from armed violence and the risk of unplanned explosives at storage facilities.
But the destruction process can present environmental challenges, from air pollution to biodiversity loss to wildlife destruction. Humanitarian organisations like MAG need to innovate and find ways to mitigate the harmful ecological consequences of our life-saving work.
In Ecuador, MAG recently undertook an environmentally-sensitive operation to destroy almost 20 US tons of aluminium octoate.
Aluminium octoate is a highly flammable chemical harnessed by militaries to act as an accelerant in incendiary bombs. From World War II to the Vietnam War, aluminium octoate has been used to burn and destroy bunkers, tunnels, vegetation, vehicles and soldiers.
Incendiary weapons have also been used against civilian populations, causing severe burns and other devastating effects. In 1980, the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons banned militaries from using incendiary weapons against civilians.
In early 2021, the Ecuadorian Air Force alerted MAG to 19.6 US tons of aluminium octoate stored in military bases.
The chemical was stored, unused, in barrels left sitting for decades. The aluminium octoate could have spilt or burned through the barrels and caught fire, having potentially tragic consequences for anyone in the vicinity.
Moreover, if the facilities were breached, the chemical was vulnerable to being diverted and used for intentionally harmful purposes.
But destroying aluminium octoate using a controlled burn can pose a threat to the environment; damaging the soil and risking wildlife habitats.
The decision to destroy or continue storing was a finely balanced one undertaken by the Ecuadorian Air Force. The decision weighed the cost and risks of building dedicated and controlled storage facilities against the potential for mitigating the environmental harms caused by controlled destruction.
With no intention to use the chemical, the Ecuadorian Air Force was keen for destruction and sought MAG's technical expertise.
The first step in the process was finding a dedicated destruction plant. Working together, MAG and the Ecuadorian Air Force selected a suitable site and got to work assessing the least environmentally harmful means of destruction.
Marcell Ayala is the Head of Operations at the destruction plant:
“Initially, we thought we would do controlled incineration, but then we learned that this compound is used as a burning additive that increases the duration intensity of the fire."
"We determined that it would be difficult to thermally destroy the waste as the furnace works in a combustion chamber at 900°C and in a post-combustion chamber at 1,200°C. Operating outside this temperature range would be dangerous and expensive.”
Working in collaboration with the national authorities, MAG ruled out incineration in favour of neutralisation.
“To neutralise and stabilise the aluminium octoate, it was mixed with a solution of hydrocarbon sludge, water, paint sludge and quicklime. At the end of the process, the byproducts had a humidity lower than 30 per cent and a pH of 7.5."
"In addition, after a flammability test, we were able to confirm the resultant 'sludge' was stable enough to be stored in a safety cell, with the guarantee that it would not be reactive."
Security cells are engineered to avoid any chance of air, soil, and groundwater contamination and insulated with a three-millimetre-thick geomembrane.
"This process allows us to safely confine the byproducts of the neutralisation process for chemicals and substances that cannot be otherwise safely destroyed," Marcell concludes.
By collaborating with national authorities and experts like Marcell, MAG will continue protecting vulnerable communities from the threat of explosive weapons and armed violence — while also reducing our impact on the climate and natural environment.
MAG’s work in Ecuador would not be possible without the support of the US government.