27 Sep 2013

Vanuatu debates whether unexploded bombs pose a real threat to islands

4:32 pm on 27 September 2013

A debate on whether unexploded ordnance is a threat in Vanuatu has surfaced this week after a councillor called on the United States to clean up World War II machinery.

The site in question is a popular dive location and the tourism industry has reacted.

Alex Perrottet reports.

The Secretary General of the Sanma Provincial Council, on Espiritu Santo, has called on the US to at least carry out research to see what effects on the ecosystem the World War II machinery has caused. The trucks, bulldozers and cranes were dumped in the water at the end of the war. Sakaraia Daniel says the local people who fish in the area have to be careful of the rusty machinery and to avoid poisoning.

"SAKARAIA DANIEL: The erosion of metals, in a way, they give a negative impact to the ocean, not only in that area, but as the tides flow in and out, that take it all across the peninsula. So it's in that area and extending to several hundred metres away."

But a dive operator and Chairman of the Santo Tourism Association has criticised the requests, saying there is no unexploded ordnance in Vanuatu. Dave Cross says he has never heard of food poisoning problems from the fish.

DAVE CROSS: Santo or Luganville was never a theatre of war, it was a huge American base and I am sure there are one or two shells lying around. I am not aware in the 17 years I've been here of anybody being injured by exploding ordnance. I am not aware of anybody finding any unexploded bombs.

The owner of Aquamarine diving, Rehan Syed, says he has been diving for 25 years in the area and the machinery has become an attractive coral reef.

REHAN SYED: 80 percent of the tourism that comes here to Santo comes here just for diving. And Million Dollar Point is a great dive site. And Million Dollar Point being cleaned out or what-have-you is only going to cause problems. It will definitely affect the tourism quite a bit.

But police say unexploded ordnance is still an issue on Santo. Senior Sergeant Jimilton Tabi says although there were no battles, the huge US army base left unexploded bombs behind.

JIMILTON TABI: We have unexploded ordnance of bombs, we have rocket missiles, and bullets, other stuff that they left behind during World War II and they're not cleared, they are everywhere on Santo. On Million Dollar Point, people say it's safe, but I think it's not safe. You have bullets all over the place on the reefs and they have vehicles in the sea. And also it's dangerous to sea creatures.

Senior Sergeant Jimilton Tabi says despite the dangers there are no official warnings given to tourists who dive around the island. The deputy chief of mission of the US embassy to Vanuatu, Melanie Higgins, is looking into the matter, after the question was put to her on a recent visit. The Pacific Islands Forum report in 2011 said an interview with police in 2010 led it to conclude the presence of bombs, although it said a proper assessment had not been undertaken. The US military did visit the islands last year to recover the remains of four American airmen who crashed on the mountains.