19 Aug 2013

NZ's biggest single aid package unveiled in Solomons

3:03 pm on 19 August 2013

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully officially opened the Munda airstrip on Thursday, as work drew to a close in the Western Division of the Solomon Islands.

A cross-party delegation from New Zealand were in attendance, and were given a tour of the project, which includes a 19-kilometre road.

The 20 million US dollar aid package is New Zealand's biggest single aid project and it didn't come without serious challenges.

Alex Perrottet was in Munda for the opening.

Murray McCully was presented with a chiefly clam shell ring after landing on the new airstrip and was surprised to see the new Munda-Noro road that was finished a week ago had been named McCully Road.

The airstrip is now a weather alternative to Honiara airport for international flights that have to be diverted and it saves tonnes of fuel that previously had to be carried in case of having to land in Vanuatu.

The deputy Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Maelanga, says there were hurdles such as landowner issues.

MANASSEH MAELANGA: The journey so far is not easy but I believe it's a future success story. Many consultative meetings were held between government representatives, our partners and stakeholders. I recall at one stage our Prime Minister had to intervene in one of these meetings.

Maelanga, says the airstrip will help tourism and business opportunities as well.

The new road took less than twenty minutes to drive compared to the hour it took before.

It links the airport with the international seaport where the Soltuna cannery is situated.

Mr McCully says he chose the project with local and national leaders in February 2010 as a way of refocussing New Zealand's assistance from the RAMSI effort to a development one, boosting tourism and business in the western division.

MURRAY MCCULLY: If you look around here you'll see there's enormous tourism potential and there's a huge tuna industry as well and we wanted to provide a gateway which we believe this airport will provide for those to grow quickly as well.

Mr McCully says a challenge but added bonus was the removal of over 6-thousand items of unexploded ordnance from the second world war, ranging from hand grenades and live cannon shells to a five-hundred pound bomb.

MURRAY MCCULLY: We've made some small contributions to unexploded ordnance projects around the region but in relation to this project, it's been a major undertaking. I've got to say while it's been a very frustrating ride, it's one of the most satisfying projects that I've been associated with and I'm delighted to see that that view is shared by the people here.

Another part of the project is the upgrade to the remote airstrip at Gizo. A long boat ride to the island drove home the point that good airstrips are needed if tourists are to visit in bigger numbers.

The contractor in charge of the project was Downer Engineering with AECOM the engineers and supervisors.

They've almost finished with heavy equipment compacting the ground before three layers of bitumen are laid.

Yannick Chaska, the site engineer from AECOM, says Gizo airport was like a potholed road which caused damage to planes and had a notorious bump in the middle of the runway which gave them an enormous amount of earth to use in the new project.

JANEK CZASTKA: Taking off, you go over the bump and you think you're taking off but you're not, you just go back down again and then you take off... so as material source is normally an issue when you're working in the Pacific, we were fortunate enough to be able to use that hump material. We extracted eleven thousand cubes and it's gone all the way down that end to the runway which is about three hundred metres, and then another six hundred metres down that way.

He says the airstrip is important to service the nearby town of Gizo, the second-largest centre in the country, and there will be a boat service taking passengers across the water to the hotels there.

Mr Czastka says it's a long-term investment.

JANEK CZASTKA: With the amount of aggregate that we're putting down and then the weather proofing of the seal on top, it's going to ensure that this airport will be serviceable for a good twenty-five years, hopefully longer.

Nearby restauranteur and retiring local member for Gizo Dan Kennedy said the upgrade of the airstrip has been on the to do list for decades, and the local people are indebted to New Zealand.

His words were backed up by the thousands who turned up at Munda to see the delegates cut the ribbon.

Mr Czastka says small stores are opening up and even taxi companies have arrived and are making good use of the road.

But there is still work to be done here, and the Premier of the Western Division George Solingi Lilo hinted there could be more land issues ahead with the urgent need of international and domestic terminals.

GEORGE SOLINGI LILO: Improving passenger experience and orientation, facilities like accomodation, food court, holding lounges, parking areas, retail facilities, would require land and space.

But the trade-off is employment opportunities for locals and hopefully an eventual increase in the standard of living.

Going by the reception given to the New Zealand delegation, the local people here are optimistic about the future.