When you think about the Pacific islands, many things can come to mind, such as coconut trees, coral reefs, and pristine beaches. In many cases, however, nestled below those coconut trees, lodged in the reefs, and buried under the beaches are unexploded World War II-era bombs and projectiles. I recently traveled to Palau and the Solomon Islands to assess U.S.-funded programs to limit the impact those old but still explosive remnants of war (ERW) have on local populations and their environment.
In Palau, the non-governmental organization Cleared Ground Demining (CGD) operates a program centered on the island of Peleliu, where for 74 fierce days in late 1944, American forces battled the island’s Japanese defenders. The scorched earth, and the charred remains of trees and vehicles have long since given way to lush greenery on Peleliu. A few pillboxes and artillery emplacements still stand, and oil drums, canteens and other war relics still litter the jungle. However, ERW remain the most dangerous reminders of the fierce combat that swept over the island. Loose bullets, machine gun bands, mortars and large aerial bombs contrast with the beautiful scenery on land and in the waters around Peleliu, making this picturesque landscape dangerous for the locals, for development and for tourists. U.S. funding helps CGD to build local capacity to deal with the negative effects of ERW by training Palauan teams to conduct battle area clearance, explosive ordnance disposal spot tasks, and risk education campaigns. U.S. funding has supported the clearance of suspected hazardous land adjacent to Peleliu’s only power plant, and this coming year, CGD will clear unexploded ordnance (UXO) along a planned pipeline that will supply the residents of Peleliu with running water.
My trip ended at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, centerpiece of the U.S. Marine landings and naval engagements that kicked off the island hopping across the Pacific. Not too far from Guadalcanal’s main airport and set in a clearing through dense jungle is Hell’s Point, where PM/WRA funds the American nonprofit Golden West Humanitarian Foundation to train the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force’s explosive ordnance disposal (RSIPF EOD) team. After just two years of training, the RSIPF EOD team has gained an incredible capacity to recognize, remove, and reduce the impact of ERW left behind from the vicious fighting from 1942 to 1943. For example, in the past year alone they’ve destroyed over 10,000 ERW in the Solomon Islands. In addition to limiting the public safety threat that ERW pose, the team prevents so-called “fishbombers” from acquiring explosives for the dangerous and environmentally-harmful practice of explosive fishing. Where munitions are sufficiently stable, the team uses a mobile band saw to cut munitions open and burn out their explosive content, rather than detonate them. The RSIPF are now capable of assisting fellow Pacific island states, as two members of the RSIPF EOD team accompanied Golden West EOD experts on another U.S.-funded clearance project in the Marshall Islands in July of this year.
It is truly important that this work continue. ERW threaten not only the residents of and visitors to contaminated Pacific islands, but the environment as well. In addition to the potential for accidental detonation, these old munitions can contain harmful compounds. As the munitions deteriorate on land and in the water, they release chemicals into the ground and into the food chain. As a result, clearance and capacity-building programs that the United States, Australia and other countries fund are critical for Pacific island environments, economies and populations.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of State has provided $1 million for ERW removal projects in the Pacific, and sent representatives to the June 2013 Pacific Islands Forum 2nd Regional UXO Workshop in Brisbane, Australia. Through PM/WRA, the Department of State looks forward to expanding its work in the Pacific, including research projects on ERW contamination in the Pacific and hopping to more islands to conduct ERW clearance. This important work is saving lives, permitting development where it is needed, and preserving the delicate environment of the Pacific region.
To learn more about PM/WRA’s conventional weapons destruction programs worldwide, please visit our webpage.