Special Report: Solomon Islands’ Explosive Legacy

by Mette Eliseussen and John Rodsted [ SafeGround ] - view pdf

IED charge fitted for anti-lift. All photos courtesy of Janus Global Operations.
IED charge fitted for anti-lift.
All photos courtesy of Janus Global Operations.

The Solomon Islands encompass over 900 islands scattered across the ocean north of Australia and east of Papua New Guinea. Many of the 500,000 inhabitants still live with unknown quantities of explosive remnants of war (ERW) left behind from combat between Japan and the United States during World War II. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) of both U.S. and Japanese origin remains on some of the nation’s atolls.1,2 Since the end of the war, sporadic clearance was undertaken, including through Operation Render Safe, a joint clearance program between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There have also been a number of commercial clearance projects. For the last five years, the international clearance organization Golden West Humanitarian Foundation (Golden West), supported by the U.S. Department of State, is working alongside the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to address the problem on a more systemic scale. This operation focuses on heavily contaminated areas on the island of Guadalcanal.

Contamination in Solomon Islands

On 22 January 1942, Japan dropped the first bombs on the Solomon Islands, and on 3 May of that same year, Japan occupied the country. Most foreigners were evacuated and those who remained took on roles as coast watchers with the Royal Australian Navy. With crucial help from the local population, they kept Australia informed of the Japanese movements. During the first three months, Japan met no resistance and was able to construct an airfield on Guadalcanal. In response, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in an attempt to stop Japan from threatening their supply and communication lines to allies in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands campaign lasted over a year, killing over 24,000 Japanese and 1,600 U.S. soldiers.3 In 1945, foreign military forces left behind sunken ships, burnt-out tanks, abandoned stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, large empty gun emplacements, and UXO.4 During the Solomon Islands’ civil war, from 1998 to 2003, combatants made use of many abandoned weapons, which served as a ready source of deadly arms.5,6 As a result of villagers becoming accustomed to handling explosives, it is believed that dynamite fishing increased during and after the conflict.

A significant factor hampering clearance efforts is the lack of reliable documentation of the WWII ERW contamination. The only sources of information recorded in writing are accounts from reports and books on battles written by the various WWII military forces fighting on the Solomon Islands from which it is difficult to pinpoint ERW sites. Local islander knowledge is extensive albeit anecdotal, but not easily accessible to the national or international community.

International Response

Until recently, international awareness of ERW contamination and its impact in the Pacific was incomplete, even within the mine action community. This is partially because international assistance in mine action is primarily driven by two international treaties, the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). As neither landmines nor cluster munitions are believed to be present in the Pacific, donor countries and mine action operators prioritized other regions, incorrectly assuming that the Pacific did not need humanitarian clearance and victim assistance. Hence the problem has persisted for more than 70 years since WWII ended.

In 2010, the first major change occurred when Pacific Forum Leaders tasked the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) to assist in addressing the longstanding presence of ERW throughout the region. PIFS conducted a study of four affected countries in 2011 and found that ERW had the potential to impact local communities. Following this, the Pacific Forum leaders expressed concern and called for assistance to address the significant contamination from WWII UXO in the Pacific. For some member states, this contamination was identified as a human security problem threatening public health, safety, and the environment.

In response, the Forum Regional Security Committee endorsed a regional UXO strategy in 2012 to assist members with managing the negative impacts of WWII UXO. PIFS is now tasked to follow up with ERW-affected member states. The priorities are Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, the Royal Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. This selection is based on the following criteria: the lack of existing mine action in-country, the expressed interest and request for assistance, the level of contamination and its impact, and current bilateral arrangements with mine action operators.7

Incidents

There are no ERW-incident statistics in the Solomon Islands, as recording mechanisms are not in place. Because dealing with explosives is illegal, SafeGround, a nonprofit organization that works to help prevent and reduce the impacts of war and conflict, inferred that survivors and relatives of survivors tend not to reveal whether the reason behind an accident was caused by handling explosives. Hence, many incidents are likely to remain unreported. However, according to Doctor Rooney at the national reference hospital in the capital city of Honiara, the hospital usually deals with five to six patients injured by ERW each year. The actual number of injuries per year is estimated to be much higher than this.

As injuries are often fatal, many people never reach the national hospital but instead die shortly after the accident and are buried in their local community without casualty data being recorded. Infrequently, incidents are reported in the news, but this usually only happens if the explosion takes place near populated areas such as Honiara or other regional centers. In 2010, the Royal Solomon Island Police Force estimated that an average of 15 Solomon Islanders lose their lives to ERW each year.8

Golden West has trained members of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) methods. Golden West’s project manager, Paul Eldred, reports extensive trespassing by bomb harvesters into ERW-contaminated areas at Hell’s Point, which lies to the east of Honiara. On an almost daily basis, SafeGround researchers saw telltale signs of people searching and scratching the ground for larger munitions, leaving behind smaller, less valuable munitions. Fishermen or in some cases specialized bomb makers who harvest the bigger bombs for explosives are the culprits. Random digging patterns in the ground indicate that they may use metal detectors to find the bombs. Local residents who find bombs on their property will sometimes sell the ERW to bomb makers for a small finding fee.

Once the bomb makers extract the munitions, they cut the bombs in half with a hacksaw to expose the explosives within. Since many people who harvest ERW cannot correctly identify the different kinds of explosives, they may inadvertently open a phosphorous shell, which explodes on contact with the air. Harvesters place any explosives that are successfully extracted in 300 ml drinking bottles. Using homemade fuses, the harvesters produce fish bombs that can be thrown into the ocean to kill and maim large numbers of fish. It is a risky but profitable business. Although harvesting bombs is illegal, police are unable to take action without hard evidence.

For fishermen, homemade bombs are more efficient than nets or spears in terms of time spent and fish caught. However, using explosives is extremely risky and does extensive environmental damage. Fishermen using these bombs search for schools of fish and then gauge the depth at which the fish are swimming and how long to hold the bomb once lit before throwing it. When the fuse is ignited, it takes three to four seconds for the bomb to explode, but these are inexact estimations that can lead to disastrous results. Many accidents happen when bombs detonate too early, injuring or severing heads, hands, or arms. Detonations stun or kill the fish, but also destroy one of the Solomon Islands’ most precious resources: the coral reefs, which are seriously damaged if the explosive detonates within a six- to eight-meter radius of the reefs. Once the bomb detonates, the fisherman jumps into the water with a net to catch as many fish as possible. However, many more fish are killed than are caught and either drift away with the current or sink into deeper water. Once impacted by explosives, the reefs take a long time to regrow and often remain permanently damaged.

Dynamite fishermen run little risk of being caught by the police. In high-speed powerboats and with an arsenal of fish bombs, they do not meet much resistance from unarmed police officers equipped with fewer and slower boats.

Environment

Extensive dynamite fishing has devastated lagoons and in some areas, such as Langalanga Lagoon in Malaita, there are no reefs or fish left. Some local communities rate dynamite fishing as their top concern.9 These reefs provide the Solomon Islanders with fish to eat. Eighty-four percent of Solomon Islanders live in rural areas, and 95 percent of the rural population depends on subsistence farming and fishing.10 Coral reefs cover less than one percent of the world’s ocean floor and are one of the most biologically rich and economically valuable ecosystems. The Solomon Islands has diverse and interesting reef types, from narrow fringing reefs that border high island shorelines to rare, double barrier reefs, patch reefs, and atolls. The Solomon Islands has the second highest diversity of coral species in the world, currently home to over 494 coral species with several nw species recently disovered.11,12,13

People in island communities relay that dynamite fishing is a common occurrence. Diving masters claim that they see up to 200 fishermen use explosives in waters around Ngella Islands every day. These fishermen boast about exceptional yields in just hours compared to the days needed to fill only one bin. Having sold the fish, they leave blasted reefs in their wake.

Reef growth rates vary from an estimated 0.8 to 80 mm per year depending on air and sea temperatures, wind speed and direction, salinity, tide levels, currents, availability of nutrients, algae, and the bottom surface. In the Solomon Islands, many people believe reefs may form in 20 to 40 years. However, the reality is that it can take much longer—even up to 10,000 years—for reefs to form from a group of larvae.14,15 Reefs blasted by dynamite produce large amounts of rubble, creating terrible conditions for coral larvae which must attach to living reefs to start growing. Therefore reefs destroyed by bombing may not recover. In contrast, studies show that bleached reefs can regrow in only a few years because the structure of the reef is still intact and coral larvae may again use it as a starting point for regeneration.16

Economic Development

ERW contamination also affects economic development in the Solomon Islands. Honiara remains heavily contaminated and telecommunication, water, and electricity companies face grave challenges when digging trenches and postholes. Australian technical consultant Nik West expressed shock at the level of ERW contamination when he started working with the Solomon Islands Electricity Authority. He quickly realized that everyone in Honiara considered running a metal detector over the area before digging to be normal. “Much of our work is laying power lines for the national electricity grid. We are always digging the earth to erect power poles and trenches to lay cables. We often unearth old bombs, both large and small, in this work. This area surrounding Honiara was hit by everything during the war… The end result is there is a very large degree of ERW in this land. We are always using detectors, but despite that, this last week one of my staff hit a large bomb with a backhoe and unearthed it. The bomb did not explode, but it terrified the backhoe operator and he ran away home and is scared to come back to work.”17 When these workers find a bomb, they call the police, and members of the police’s (EOD) team remove and dispose of the item.

Development projects are also struggling. Even in areas with less ERW contamination, construction projects may stall. There are uncertainties with regards to safe practices and the need for clearance before construction can begin. The construction of a new campus for the University of the South Pacific, a US$19 million dollar Asian Development Bank project, was delayed because of this issue. This highlights the need for national standards, which will create the base framework for the methodology and quality assurance needed to commence clearance in an effective and systematic way.

Clearance

There are nine Pacific Island countries affected by ERW but clearance operations are only underway in Palau and the Solomon Islands. In the Solomon Islands, Golden West’s mandate is to function as a training, research, and development organization. They work closely with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and have trained an 18-man team in explosive ordnance detection and disposal. Their EOD experts respond to reports from the general public within the vicinity of Honiara, but they currently have neither the budget nor the mandate to achieve full clearance in the Solomon Islands.

The APMBC helped to bring the world together to clear the legacy of landmines and this effort has since expanded to include ERW as well. The Solomon Islands is a party to the APMBC, but they have yet to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) and the U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) where Protocol V covers ERW and is highly relevant. However in April 2016, Minister Salato from the Solomon Islands Geneva mission participated, along with Australia and SafeGround, on an expert panel on ERW contamination in the Solomon Islands during a Protocol V expert meeting in Geneva.

There is hope that the donor community and mine action operators will increase their assistance to help the Solomon Islands combat its ERW contamination in the near future. In 2014 and 2015, with the support of Australian Aid and Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, SafeGround conducted field research in the Solomon Islands. For over three months, staff spent time in Guadalcanal, Ngella Islands, Russel Islands, and New Georgia Islands, working closely with the Ministry of Police National Security and Correctional Services, Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, Golden West, and PIFS as well as a number of local island community members. The main results of this collaboration are a report, a documentary film, and a photographic exhibition available at: http://www.safeground.org.au/project/solomon-islands. c

 

Biographies

Bradley Alford
Support Operations Assistant
Janus Global Operations, LLC

Bradley AlfordBradley Alford works for Janus Global Operations, supporting the U.S. Department of State conventional weapons destruction program in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, and Laos. He previously lived in Morocco where he learned Arabic through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Project Global Officer Program. He also worked as a research intern for the NATO Defense College in Rome. Bradley holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East from the University of North Georgia.

Michael Kennedy
AXO/IED Operations Manager
Janus Global Operations, LLC

Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy is the operations manager for Janus Global Operations’ IED Disposal project funded by the U.S. Department of State in Iraq. Michael served 10 years in the British Army where his experience brought him to EOD field operations in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. He has since joined the commercial and humanitarian sector, working a wide range of counter-IED projects focused in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. He has a Bachelor of Engineering from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom and is a member of the Institute of Explosive Engineers.

 

Endnotes

  1. “Solomon Islands.” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Last updated 7 October 2013. http://bit.ly/1Rqg5G3.
  2. “Solomon Islands.” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Report 2012. Last updated 10 September 2012. http://bit.ly/1TKK8y4.
  3. Zimmerman, Major John L (US MCR). The Guadalcanal Campaign. US Marine Corps. (Chapter 10 Conclusion & Appendix A: Casualties of American and enemy forces). 1949.
  4. Eldred, Paul, Golden West Humanitarian Foundation. Interview with author, 28 April 2015.
  5. “Solomon Islands.” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2000. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1U8xeWt.
  6. “Solomon Islands.” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Summary, 2000. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1Tysgse.
  7. Francis, Steven, Law Enforcement Capacity Development Officer, Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. Email correspondence with Mette Eliseussen and Lorel Thomas, 25 February 2014 and 26 February 2014.
  8. “Australia-Navy Clearance Divers Mentor Royal Solomon Islands Police in Explosive Ordnance Disposal.” GlobalDefence.net. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1Vihrtt.
  9. Sulu, Reuben John. “Multidisciplinary Appraisal of the Effectiveness of Customary Marine Tenure for Coral Reef Finfish Fisheries Management in Nggela (Solomon Islands).” Newcastle University, 10 November 2016. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1szX0N5.
  10. “Solomon Islands: Agriculture & Rural Development Strategy.” Solomon Islands Government, Ministry of Development Planning and Aid Coordination. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1WOKiXi.
  11. “Corals and Coral Reefs.” Ocean Portal Team, reviewed by Nancy Knowlton, Smithsonian NMNH. Accessed 25 may 2016. http://s.si.edu/1ndOVcT.
  12. “State of the Coral Triangle: Solomon Islands.” Asian Development Bank, 2014. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1UdB6IP.
  13. Pauku, Richard L. and Winston Lapo. “Solomon Islands: National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan.” Ministry of Environment Conservation and Meteorology, June 2009. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1szXrqC.
  14. Sikua, Edmond. Interview with Mette Eliseussen, 2 April 2015.
  15. “Corals: How do Reefs Form.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed 25 may 2016. http://1.usa.gov/22pc7Wa.
  16. Gilmour, J. “Recovery of an Isolated Coral Reef System Following Severe Disturbance.” Science, Vol. 340, Issue 6128: 69–71.
  17. West, Nik, Solomon Islands Electricity Authority. Interview with Mette Eliseussen, 4 April 2015.

References

  1. “Solomon Islands: Concerned villagers reveals dynamite fishing.” Baird Maritime. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1YZOWzJ.
  2. Chirgwin, Carl G. “Interim Report GICHD Pre-Survey Study into Explosive Remnants of War Contamination in the Pacific Region.” Geneva International Centre for Demining, 2009.
  3. Dell, Jessica. “Harnessing Geospatial Data to Enhance ERW Clearance in Pacific Islands”. The Journal of ERW and Mine Action, Issue 18.3 (December 2014). Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1TKQkpW.
  4. Eliseussen, Mette and John Rodsted. “In Search of Safe Ground - Explosive Remnants of War in Solomon Islands.” SafeGround, Dubrovnik 2015. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/22pfbBC.
  5. Francis, Steven and Ioane Alama. “WWII Unexploded Ordnance: A Study of UXO in Four Pacific Island Countries.” Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2011. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1rwuPvG.
  6. “Promoting Respect for international humanitarian law - a handbook for parliamentarians in the Solomon Islands.” Australian Red Cross. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1sA4nUJ.
  7. Kwai, Annie. “Islanders in The Second World War: A Solomon Islander Perspective.” University of the South Pacific, 2009. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1VivTBS.
  8. Smith, Justin. “ERW Contamination in the Pacific Islands.” The Journal of ERW and Mine Action, Issue 18.3 (December 2014). Accessed 25 may 2106. http://bit.ly/1sQi2I3.
  9. “Concerns Raised Over Dynamite Fishing.” Solomon Times Online, 25 July 2011. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/22pmiKm.
  10. Tiriman, Caroline. “Solomon Island’s reefs blasted by explosives.” ABC Radio Australia, 11 July 2012. Accessed 25 May 2016. http://bit.ly/1TEFIaP.