Taking stock of an ammunition depot can be a deadly task…Last year was the worst yet, with 442 victims from 46 explosions. One of the biggest ever happened in March this year: an accident in Congo-Brazzaville that killed 250, showering munitions over a two-mile radius. Thousands of ill-run weapons stores are in restless parts of Africa and the Middle East, often near towns or cities. The end of the cold war left unneeded weapons all over the Soviet empire. Moldova spends a quarter of its defence budget guarding obsolete munitions. Ukraine alone has half a million tonnes.
Most high explosives are inherently stable. But the propellant that launches projectiles from gun barrels is not. Over time it eats away at the stabilising compounds—especially in hot weather—until spontaneous detonation occurs. In rich and strict countries munitions are tested and dealt with before that happens. In poorer places, the temptation is to trust to luck. Many are also reluctant to give up their arsenals, particularly if they are unsure they can be replaced. Somaliland, an independence-seeking statelet in the Horn of Africa, for example, has curbed the destruction of its ageing weapons because international sanctions stop it buying new ones.
Small slip-ups can have grave consequences. At a weapons dump in the Rajasthan desert in India, a gardener was sacked to save money. Unkempt long grass then caught fire, triggering an explosion in April 2000 that killed two soldiers and destroyed $90m of ammunition.
Bad management of weapons dumps makes life easier for thieves and dodgy customers. It is a big headache for Western countries worried about advanced weapons such as shoulder-launched missiles, or those suitable for use by insurgents or independent militias. This is a particular problem in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi, the former dictator, spread his arms around more than 500 supply points to avoid NATO’s air strikes.
The simplest means of disposal is to blow weapons up in a hole in a remote location. But they must be expertly stacked to ensure everything explodes properly. And for big stockpiles, and in countries with tough environmental rules, that may not be possible. Alternative solutions include movable facilities that remove explosives from their casings, cut them into small pieces and burn them in a furnace. But for big munitions such schemes are costly and so far still untested.
Landmines get far more money and legal scrutiny than ammunition dumps, because of their dire effects. But perhaps too much. Adrian Wilkinson, a UN explosives specialist, reckons landmines have killed roughly five times as many people, but at least 100 times more is spent on dealing with them.
Ammunition depots: Storing up risk, Economist, Sept. 29, 2012, at 66