22 Nov 2013

Palau workshop focuses on clean up of unexploded war remnants

6:38 pm on 22 November 2013

A workshop this week in Palau has aimed to shed light on the extent of contamination from unexploded war ordnance left over from World War Two.

Run by the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat, in conjunction with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian De-mining and the government of Palau, the workshop is called 'Addressing Explosive Remnants of War'.

The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu remain contaminated with the remnants of battles 70 odd years ago.

The Pacific Islands Forum's regional security advisor, Ioane Alama, says unexploded ordnance continues to pose a significant threat in the region.

IOANE ALAMA: There is always the possibility that some of these items will explode and there is also, just for your information, a wide range of different explosive remnants, for example you have bombs that were dropped from aircraft, artillery shells, landmines, sea mines, grenades, small arms, ammunitions. So a lot of them have deteriorated, but some are actually remarkably well preserved. One of the difficulties we've had is information. A lot of times when operators go in to clear specific contaminated areas they're unaware of what type of explosives they're dealing with. I was informed during this workshop that they seek not to destroy or explode any UXO unless they can determine what exactly it is. For example, if it's white phosphorus, which is extremely dangerous in terms of the flame that it brings off, these are complications that the operators, the mine action operators, have to deal with.

DON WISEMAN: So you've been holding this workshop. What has come from it?

IA: Well, actually it's quite promising. This is actually the third regional meeting we've had. The Pacific Island Forum regional committee endorsed a regional unexploded ordnance strategy in 2012 and we had a regional meeting in Palau in October last year. We've had a capacity-building workshop earlier this year and now with this workshop, we've seen a marked increase in engagement, mainly from the international community and the International Mine Action community. Not only that, we've also seen a marked increase in financial support being provided, not only by the government of Australia, who funded the first two regional activities, but also by the United States of America's Department of State, which is funding the current workshop. Since October 2012 to now we've seen many countries developing national co-ordinating committees and looking at trying to develop information management systems so they can record and monitor what items are being destroyed. You've also seen a number of clearance activities being introduced. You have cleared ground for mining, which is a non-profit organisation who is clearing mines in Palau, but you've also got Golden West - another humanitarian demining organisation who has been clearing ordnance in Solomon Islands. Just recently in 2012 the Japan Mine Action Service, or JMAS, has begun operations in Palau, as well. Recently we've had Golden West send a team, which was made up also of Royal Solomon Island police force officers across to the Marshall Islands to clear two atolls in the Marshall Islands. So in terms of clearance there's a lot of activities being undertaken at the humanitarian clearance level, but you've also got military forces who are doing a lot of clearance. Operation render safe, which I think is Australian-led, but it's obviously a multi-military force operation is currently in Solomon Islands more than 200 personnel from five countries are working there, and I believe they'll be going into png next year.

DW: As far as the workshop goes, you are planning to do what?

IA: Our main focus, and again the workshop was organised by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining and the Pacific Island Secretariat, which is part of the US Department of State, but the main objectives were to try and operationalise a lot of the decisions or outcomes from the first two regional activities. There has been a lot of operationalisation of work in terms of trying to develop co-ordination in the Brisbane workshop, but for this workshop we're actually looking at developing information management systems. We've also got a company, Imap, who is undertaking historical research on ordnance which was used in the Pacific in World War II to provide support to member countries, so there's been a lot of discussion, as well, in terms of development of standards for national authorities on how to manage different operators who come in-country to clear the mines and the unexploded ordnance. So it's a very operationally focused workshop.

DW: You told us of the tens of thousands of explosive items still sitting around out there. The people at the workshop, do they harbour a belief that the pacific can be completely cleared of all of this stuff?

IA: Something that has come up is we've had a lot of briefings provided about activities that have been undertaken in Europe, in South East Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East regarding unexploded ordnance clearance. And I think it's been agreed that there can never be a stage where all the ordnance is cleared. Given the amount of ordnance that's sub-surface, that's been buried or in the lagoons. What can be done, however, is to prioritise areas that you need to clear for safety purposes. I think that's the main approach - clearing where is appropriate. The other impacts, for example, are impacts from the pollution, from the leaching of chemicals into the environment, those have to be taken on a case by case basis. What might affect the water lens, what might affect the food chain. And special consideration will be given to clearing those areas, but in other cases it's just not feasible to clear 100% the whole pacific.

DW: What about things like the rusting wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound off Honiara?

IA: That's actually one of the major concerns. In 2011 foreign leaders expressed concerns about them, not only the sunken wrecks themselves, but the oil that was contained in these wrecks. As you mentioned correctly in Solomon Islands the Iron Bottom Sound, in Chuuk Lagoon where you have 60 japanese vehicles sank in a 40 square-mile area in World War II there is concern for that. And I think we understand that the script for the South Pacific Environmental Programme has been handling a lot of these activities and they've also been looking at the pollution aspects of this area.