Palm trees shade the white-sand beaches fringing the shimmering water. It’s a picture of paradise. Beneath the surface, however, this paradise bears the scars of a turbulent past; under the sand, below the water and buried in the tropical forests is a hidden legacy, one that is revealed by studying the history of the Pacific and speaking with islanders who uncover the munitions of a war long-gone.
More than 70 years after war came to the peaceful Pacific region, new generations are constantly reminded of the battles by the explosive remnants of war (ERW) that litter their backyards.
Conflicts like the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands, the Battle of Milne Bay in Papua and the Battle of Peleliu in Palau have left scars that remain long after the Pacific War ended. Today, nine Pacific Nations — Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Tuvalu and Nauru — remain contaminated by explosive remnants left from the fighting.
With explosive legacies so old and emphasis placed on development agendas, ERW issues are often overlooked, slipping off the priority list of international aid and domestic affairs. For multiple generations the old bombs have been a permanent part of life, a hazard that locals learned to live with and work around.
At the core of Pacific Islanders’ livelihoods is the environment — fishing and tourism are fundamental to their existence. People live off the sea that surrounds them, harvesting its resources, and drawing tourists who come to see its famous reefs, which sustain a rich biodiversity that attracts enthusiastic divers every year. But go below the surface of the water and you can find the detritus of World War II, which today pose uncertain environmental risks to fragile ecosystems. Rotting ships and their oil are ticking time bombs, while explosive remnants leach poisonous picric acid into the sea as they break down.
The Australian Government’s 2010-2014 Mine Action Strategy concentrated on the most heavily contaminated areas of the Asia-Pacific region, countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and Iraq in West Asia. In 2010, AusAID said that although the $100 million pledged for weapons clearance and risk-education was focused on providing assistance to the Asia-Pacific region, “clearance and education of ERW have not been identified as a priority for development assistance by Pacific Island governments to date.”
But the tide is turning.
The ERW issue was raised at the Pacific Island Forum in 2010 and a survey was distributed to gain a clearer picture of how member countries are affected by long-standing contamination. At the next annual meeting, Pacific leaders collectively conveyed their concerns about ERW, highlighting the threat posed to human security, the environment and the serious burden placed on development. By channelling their concerns through the Pacific Island Forum, the ERW issue gained increased international attention and Pacific Island governments have begun to coordinate a joint approach to the problem.
Late last month, AusAID supported the Regional Pacific Explosive Remnants of War Workshop, which was jointly hosted by humanitarian organisation Safe Ground. The meeting was designed to address the problems caused by ERW, facilitate the creation of comprehensive national action plans, and to convey the various financial and technical assistance that is available to island nations, which have limited resources to deal with such issues. The workshop followed on from last year’s Pacific Island Forum meeting on the implementation of an ERW strategy. Safe Ground National Coordinator Lorel Thomas told The Diplomat that the workshop promoted a regional approach to the problem and encouraged Pacific Nations to join the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions: “The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat is now playing a vital role in coordination of clearance efforts and in the development of national action plans for Pacific Island countries.”