NATO – Six Colours: Molfetta, Danger on the seabed


[intro music] “We’ve suffered burns on the hands, skin inflammation,
conjunctivitis, respiratory problems … It’s become almost impossible to continue
our kind of fishing. We’ve been facing this problem for 10 years now,
and it’s getting worse every year… We’ve reached the point where there’s a risk of
a real shortage…” This is Molfetta, a small seaside village
in south-eastern Italy, on the Adriatic. Vitantonio Tedesco is a fisherman. He’s been
burned by mustard gas. In the Adriatic as in many other seas, the
sea-bed is littered with thousands of mines, bombs and other munitions lost or abandoned
at the end of the two world wars. Because of the risk of explosion or release
of toxic chemicals, these munitions pose a constant danger to shipping,
to the population at large, to fishermen, but also to the environment and the food chain. As well as pursuing efforts to combat piracy,
arms trafficking, drug trafficking and terrorism, NATO is working to reduce this threat too.
That is the mission of the NATO Undersea Research Centre, known as the NURC. “The centre started off really in the 1950s
by combining the efforts of several of the NATO nations to combat the growing anti-submarine
threat that the nations could not deal with individually.
From there, our work expanded in the late 1980s, early 1990s,
to take on mine countermeasures as well. And what we are now doing is concentrating more
on oceanography and meteorology.” The precision and speed of the NURC’s technology
are real assets for NATO member states that wish to take advantage of it.
In spring 2008, the NURC provided the Latvian navy with better information on the status
of objects lying in its territorial waters. Urgent action was needed to make shipping
safer in the Baltic Sea, where there are still between 60,000 and 80,000 munitions
dating back to the two world wars. “Since 1996 Latvian navy has participated
actively in different mine-cleaning operations. Their routine work is mine-cleaning, but they
do not possess the technology that would allow them to detect, to identify properly.
And therefore as a small nation we could benefit from specialists from technologies developed
in NURC.” Here we are back in the Adriatic. The NURC
team is conducting a location and detection mission off Molfetta.
It is the result of collaboration with the Italian navy and the port authorities. “Now we are getting to the interesting part
of the operation. The vehicle is now in the rubber boat and we are ready to deploy it
into the water to start its mission (…) The vehicle has a very sensitive sensor on
it, which picks up very small objects on the seabed,
from the type of ordnance we are looking through right through to detailed images of wrecks
and other objects which have been dropped on the seabed. (…) This information is then passed to other authorities
such as the Navy EOD teams or to the hydrographic offices where the data
can be entered into navigational charts, to make navigation safer for everybody.” The threat affects everyone, as most world
trade involves transport by sea. Maritime safety and freedom of navigation
are at the heart of NATO’s original missions, so the NURC is doing everything it can to
facilitate neutralization of these munitions by the member states. “It is estimated that about 80% of all goods
traded are shipped by sea, which means this type of work is essential for commercial reasons.
But it is also vital from the food safety standpoint, as the entire fish supply chain
must be constantly inspected and monitored.” The undersea data gathered by the NURC will
allow the area to be categorized and mapped. The job can done by 3 men and the underwater
vehicle. That’s the strength of this technology: it’s extremely effective, easy to deploy,
and affordable. “In conclusion, what this technology is
aiming to achieve is to reduce the cost of conducting mine warfare operations for the
nations, but also more importantly, to try and take
more people out of harm’s way by putting robots in to do the really dangerous work.
And the real objective is to make this a real enabler to allow the follow-on maritime forces,
be they assault forces or ships coming in to take people off a hostile coast, to make
life safer for them as well and try and reduce the mine threat as low as we can.” And the technology is also useful to reduce
the threat to the ecosystem. ISPRA, the Advanced Institute for Environmental Protection and
Research, is collaborating with the NURC to study the
status of the flora and fauna close to
the munitions. “It has been proven that chemical weapons
also have a macroscopic effect, particularly in the case of chemical weapons containing
mustard gas, which is an irritant that causes blisters.
Our research has also identified liver and spleen lesions in fish caught in areas near
the ordnance.” The joint work done by the NURC and ISPRA
will lead to a risk assessment model that can be adapted for other critical areas.
This should reassure professional seamen, among whom the anxiety is palpable.
The future of their profession and their health depend on long-term protection of coastal
and marine areas. “It’s true that we are starting to see results,
but I hope we’re going to go beyond research and investigation.
We want a lasting improvement in the situation, not a palliative to shut the discontents up.
We want a complete clean-up, to solve this problem once and for all, because today I’m
scared, really scared.”

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