Features | Environment | Society | Oceania

Explosive Remnants of War in the Pacific

World War II left the Pacific with a dangerous legacy, which continues to trouble island nations seven decades later.

By Gemima Harvey for

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.

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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.”

These recent efforts reflect the push toward getting funding and the focus on ridding the Pacific of explosive remnants. For 70 years the problem has persisted, with limited capacity to clear the old bombs, a task made even more difficult by the diverse terrain — scattered islands, tropical forests, mangroves, reefs, lagoons — and a lack of bombing data to provide guidance.

The impact of the explosive legacy is only now becoming evident in some Pacific nations. Thomas said that a major revelation of the latest workshop was the extent to which the fishing industry in Kiribati is being harmed as a result of underwater ERW. The level of contamination in Palau, on the other hand, is more obvious due to the work of non-government organization Cleared Ground Demining (CGD), which started mine action efforts there five years ago.

In Palau, the threat posed to human safety and the environment is clear, as is the impact on development. Explosive remnants of war include hand grenades, land and sea mines, cluster bombs, rockets, missiles, artillery and mortar shells and general-purpose bombs. These are scattered across the archipelago of the 200 small islands that make up Palau, affecting the population of about 20,000 people seven decades on.

Cleared Ground Demining’s Director Steve Ballinger explained to The Diplomat that no extensive or methodical clearance had taken place, aside from dumping of military stores at sea after the war. As a result, explosive remnants affect residential, recreational, historical, tourism and infrastructure sites. Locals are exposed to the hazards of ERW daily, while hunting for crabs, fishing and farming crops like taro and bananas. A significant portion of CGD’s work has also been focused on areas were tourists frequent, to mitigate the serious threat ERW pose to Palau’s tourism industry, which accounts for 60% of the country’s GDP.

In 2009, the CGD team did a door-knock survey in Peleliu, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Campaign was waged. More than one quarter of all households and community spaces were contaminated by ERW, live grenades were found in the history display of a 6th grade classroom and a museum contained 28 items of explosive remnants in an open display. On the 65th Anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu, in September 2009, CGD formally launched projects in Peleliu and Angaur and in a period of six months, around 5,500 explosive items weighing more than 6 tons were discovered and destroyed.

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Given that Peleliu covers just 13 square kilometers, the level of contamination can be imagined. CGD’s Cassandra McKeown said that kids are warned away from contaminated areas in Peleliu by old folklores of ghosts lurking there; a tactic so effective that one of their deminers was reluctant to enter a former battlefield to start clearance work.

Building projects are also stifled by ERW that are hidden sub-surface. During the eight-year construction of the Palau Compact Road of Babeldaob, 5000 items of ERW were discovered in an 85-kilometre stretch. The Landmine Monitor reported that the explosive remnants found during the road's construction ranged from 500-pound bombs to artillery rounds, mortar rounds, grenades and large quantities of 55-caliber ammunition.

When the CGD began operations, funding was hard to find. After a self-funded start-up, the organization has run programs with the aid of sporadic grants. Recently, Ballinger cut the ribbon of an AusAID-funded Regional Explosive Ordnance Disposal Training School on Peleliu Island. The school will be used by the demining NGO to train law enforcement authorities and raise awareness about the risk of ERW among community groups. Australia is stepping up support for its Oceanic neighbors and has just pledged $3 million to reduce the threat of ERW in Palau, allowing CGD to continue its clearance work with financial security for the next three years. Cleared Ground’s McKeown said that the changing landscape of mine action in Palau was fostered by the results of their work, “having collected more items than people in Palau” and having a fully trained dive team regularly turning up underwater ERW.

Assistance for other affected Pacific Nations is building, with another demining organization reportedly planning to start programs in the region. Among efforts already underway, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation has been working with the Royal Solomon Island Police Force to build capacity since 2011, including the creation of a training center where operators in the South Pacific can learn bomb disposal techniques locally.

With the explosive remnants deteriorating and becoming increasingly unstable, efforts are being stepped up to tackle the problem. With increased communication between donors, affected countries and clearance operators, perhaps a new generation of Pacific Islanders will no longer have to stumble across old bombs in the paradise they call home.

Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.