Saving Lives in the South Pacific: Harnessing Data to Address Lingering Threats from WWII-Vintage Munitions

Posted by Catherine Ramsey
June 13, 2014
Mortars and Projectiles From the Battle of Peleliu (1944) Lay Abandoned in the Republic of Palau

In 2012, the United States marked the 70th anniversary of the World War II Allied landing at Guadalcanal, which led in 1943 to a strategic victory in the Pacific.  The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) began providing support for conventional weapons destruction assistance in the Pacific Islands in 2009.  Many of the island nations, including what is now the Solomon Islands, saw heavy fighting between Allied and Japanese forces during the so-called “island-hopping” campaign between 1942 and the war’s end in 1945.

More than seventy years later, communities on many of these islands still face hidden hazards from bombs, mortars, artillery shells, and other unexploded ordnance (UXO), but a recent U.S. initiative is harnessing data to find and locate these abandoned armaments faster, and bring long overdue peace of mind to area residents.

Many of these abandoned munitions are of U.S. origin, and lay buried on land or in the surrounding waters, posing not only a safety risk but also a barrier to economic development.  These munitions also present the United States with a unique opportunity to take action and make these islands a safer place for everyone.  For this reason, the Department has prioritized the safe removal of these legacies of war in the East Asia and Pacific region.

This map, produced by Information Management and Mine Action Programs, Inc. (iMMAP) with the support of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, shows the location of bombing data and identifies remaining UXO hazards in the Solomon Islands. [State Department map by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement/ Public Domain]

As in any post-conflict cleanup, reliable data on the location of munitions is critical.  However, relatively little such information exists on lingering UXO in the Pacific Island region, which makes clearance projects in this expansive area especially challenging.  While several ongoing efforts focus on reconstructing the historical record of ordnance use in the Pacific during WWII, they are uncoordinated and relatively incomplete.  Beginning in 2012, PM/WRA has supported Information Management and Mine Action Programs, Inc. (iMMAP) in its efforts to locate bombing data and identify remaining UXO hazards in the Pacific Islands.

In the last few months, iMMAP has worked to complete a comprehensive picture of clearance activities to date in the region.  Utilizing a three phased approach -- assessment, collection, and analysis -- iMMAP is compiling data on clearance activities, actors, and organizations.  This process begins with interviews of current and past clearance operators, with the information then recorded within a web-based application called Loom.  This application plots updated information on suspected hazards and clearance activity locations on a map.  Users can then prioritize suspected hazardous areas for clearance based on the needs of the host nation’s government.  iMMAP-produced maps also clearly label sites of WWII era battles, a valuable visual tool for understanding where UXO may still exist, in addition to where PM/WRA-funded clearance projects are currently underway in the region.

This map, produced by Information Management and Mine Action Programs, Inc. (iMMAP) with the support of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, shows the location of bombing data and identifies remaining UXO hazards in Palau. [State Department map by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement/ Public Domain]

Through this process, iMMAP will enable PM/WRA and other partners working to address this complex challenge to better understand how hazards from unexploded ordnance affect the people and nations in the Pacific region, and to develop more effective strategies to tackle the problem.

Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.3 billion in assistance to more than 90 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war.  For more information on U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, including humanitarian demining, check out the latest edition of our To Walk the Earth in Safety.

About the Author: Catherine Ramsey serves as an Assistant Program Manager in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.

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Eileen N.
|
California, USA
July 13, 2014
It has only taken the US 70 years to rectify the wrong of leaving our unexploded ordinances throughout the Solomon Islands. Now after scores of Solomon Islanders have lost their lives as well as limbs we are finally doing something about it. While this program looks at bombs, it does not look at the unsealed landfills created when we closed military bases, like Munda Naval Base, at the end of the war. In addition to these types of reconciliation programs the US should consider increasing much needed developmental aid to a country that is faced with significant health delivery challenges, climate change impacts they do not contribute significantly to and economic challenges. This US bomb initiative is a start, but why not increase Fulbright Scholarships to Pacific Islanders (we have only awarded 15 total over the past 5 years), or support medical career development programs that keep local doctors working locally and stop hiring Pacific Island doctors away from their own countries to work in American Samoan hospitals, funded by US tax payer dollars.

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