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North-West Pacific harbors most of the unexploded ordnance

By Kim Austin WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Pacific Scoop, Oct. 12, 2011) – World War II may have ended more than 60 years ago, but for those living in the Pacific "theatre of war" the legacy of death and devastation remains.

When fighting finally ceased in 1945, foreign military forces packed up and returned to their respective homelands, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake.

They also left piles of unexploded ordnance (UXO), which still plague the region today.

Literally tonnes of UXO, ranging from hand grenades to depth chargers designed to sink huge ships, remain in the Pacific. They are scattered about people’s homes, gardens, schools – and in the sea.

Remarkably enough, Cameron Noble, UNDP Conflict Prevention Adviser for the Pacific

Islands Forum Secretariat, says that, "some UXO are still very useable and can actually be put into a weapon and fired just as they were intended to 60-70 years ago".

Apart from the obviously massive problem of risking life and limb when digging a new taro patch, this situation is also causing issues when it comes to economic development.

Tourism, long seen as a panacea for all the Pacific’s economic woes, cannot be properly developed until areas have been cleared and declared safe.

The countries most affected by this problem are those in the North-West Pacific where the fighting was heaviest. These include the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, PNG, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The logistical difficulties of clearing land over such a massive area are immense. To put it into perspective, Kiribati alone is made up of 33 islands spread across 3,500,000 square kilometers of ocean.

Of these nations, Only Palau has the help of an international non-government organization to undertake a comprehensive clearance plan.

Cleared Ground Demining (CGD) is a British-based NGO that aims to locate and remove or destroy remnants of war in a number of countries around the world, most recently in the Pacific.

In 2009, CGD established a programme in Palau to help clear away the piles of deadly debris that blight the land. In the first two years of operations they cleared more than 42 tonnes of UXO ranging from land mines to torpedoes.

CGD director Stephen Ballinger says that "it is very much in people’s lives. It’s a daily risk to the population".

Ballinger estimates the failure rate for the clearances to be as high as 25-30 percent. He also says the problem is not just confined to remote areas.

"On Peleliu 26 percent of households have a problem with unexploded remnants of war. But it’s not confined to rural areas. Some of these weapons have degraded to the point where they have become self detonating. Two and a half years ago an unexploded bomb took out the power station in the capital, Koror,"

To make matters worse, many of these weapons have been in either the ground or the sea for so long they no longer even remotely resemble their original form. Some have become so encrusted with earth and marine life they actually look organic.

Recently, a Japanese tourist to Palau’s famous rock islands decided to build a fire on the beach. He began by collecting some small rocks to form a circle around the hole he had dug.

Only one of the rocks wasn’t a rock at all. It was a hand grenade and he was seriously injured.

Given that 60 percent of Palau’s GDP comes from tourism, Ballinger wryly states that, "it’s quite important to get this cleared up before we blow up any more tourists".

Jeffrey Antol, director of Palau’s Bureau of Foreign Affairs, says although the people of Palau are grateful for the work that has been done so far, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Only five percent of the unexploded weapons have been recovered or destroyed. We still have a long road ahead."

As well as the work done by CGD, there have also been efforts made by governments to help with the situation.

Notably the Japanese government has been the greatest financial contributor to UXO recovery efforts in the region.

The New Zealand government has also contributed, sending a task police task force to asses the situation and assist with the clean-up.

Lieutenant-Colonel Wayne Boustridge of the New Zealand Police, says that many people are not even aware of the extent of the problem.

"The scale of this problem is significant. Unless you see it, it’s really difficult to appreciate."

And Boustridge warns that "it’s not going to go away in the next 10 years".

He says that as well as actually helping to remove the UXO, the task force also had an objective of helping local populations deal with the problem.

"We were developing host nation capabilities so that in the future they would be better equipped to deal with the issues rising from UXO."

Another organisation helping with the issue is the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC).

Director of SPC’s Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC), Russell Howorth, says that UXO in the Pacific is "a real issue that hasn’t had the attention it justifiably deserves".

He adds that the issue is not just about explosives, but about war wreckage in general.

Some Pacific nations have managed to use aspects of the situation to their advantage.

Wreck diving among sunken World War II battleships has become a fashionable holiday pastime, championed by such travel luminaries as the Lonely Planet.

It has become a significant tourism drawcard, particularly in the Solomon Islands, where you can dive around ships in the aptly named Iron Bottom Sound.

The flip side of this is the danger many of these hulks pose to the very environment that tourists come to admire.

The possibility of oil spills from the sunken vessels is significant, and even a relatively small spill by modern standards could cause massive damage in such a fragile environment.

Howorth says nations with a very small landmass, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, are particularly vulnerable to widespread environmental destruction from oil spills.

Cameron Noble agrees with Howorth, saying UXO are "deteriorating, rusting, leaking and causing all sorts of environmental problems".

He cites the example of the Kiribati lagoon development, which could not go ahead due problems with UXO and warns that they are a continued hindrance to large scale economic development as well as to fishing and farming.

Howorth touches on the smaller scale, more personal effect the UXO have on the everyday lives of the people who live in the region.

"There are school children bringing grenades to school. Women cannot access gardens because it’s not even safe to dig in the ground."

He also says that because many of the weapons are still perfectly useable, some entrepreneurial locals have found a way to recycle them so that they are still causing destruction today.

Gunpowder is removed from old weapons and either put into new ones or flogged off at the local market for any given purpose, from fishing to fighting.

"In the markets of Honiara you can buy gunpowder by the sack for a couple of hundred New Zealand dollars."

Howorth fears that much of this gunpowder is used to make weapons for small scale local conflicts, as well as major ones such as the fighting in Bougainville.

With the problem garnering so little attention in the West, many tiny Pacific nations have been left to cope with only a modicum of external support.

In 2008 the Australian Defence Force deployed a small group of 22 personnel to assist with the recovery of UXO in Kiribati.

When they departed, the Kiribati Police Service was left in charge of the disposal of any materials found. A subsequent visit from the Australians revealed that some of the UXO had been removed without any disarming procedures being performed.

In PNG, reduction efforts have been hampered by lack of information. Officials have been unable to ascertain the exact numbers of UXO introduced to the region, and, as such, location and removal has been even more difficult.

For more than six decades the people of the Pacific have been forced to live side-by-side with danger as a result of being the unwitting staging ground for some of the fiercest fighting the world has ever seen.

Many in the West are unaware the problem even exists. But until something is done about it, this situation will continue to hamper a vast area of the Pacific in both small and large scale ways.

Pacific Scoop All editorial and news content produced under the principles of Creative Commons. Permission to republish with attribution may be obtained from the Pacific Media Centre - pmc@aut.ac.nz

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