The U.S. Department of State will provide $1 million to fund ongoing efforts to locate and document unexploded ordnance left behind by American and Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands 80 years after one of the most ferocious campaigns of World War II.

Unexploded ordnance, called UXO, still kills and maims an estimated 20 Solomon Islanders annually and little has been done by the U.S., its allies, Japan or the Solomon Islands to understand the true scope of the issue.

UXO experts agree a comprehensive survey of the almost 1,000-island archipelago is needed before meaningful work to clear the rusted bombs and other explosive remnants of WWII can begin.

However, Solomon Islands officials have expressed reservations over a lack involvement in the process that awarded the contract to British-American nonprofit HALO Trust. They are also concerned that a formal agreement between the U.S. and the Solomon Islands has yet to be signed, even though the contract started on Jan. 1.

Unexploded ordnance stored at Hells Point on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, August 2022.
Unexploded ordnance is stored at Hell’s Point on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The Solomon Islands have attracted increased U.S. attention for its increasingly close relationship with China whose influence in the Pacific is a geopolitical concern for the U.S. and its allies.

The White House held its first summit with Pacific nations in September, leading to a Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership, including a commitment to resolve the longstanding UXO issue.

Fatal Incident Underpins Distrust

A 2020 incident involving a previous contractor, Norwegian People’s Aid, underpins local concerns. Two of the nongovernmental organization’s staff members died while attempting to disarm a mortar in a residential section of the capital, Honiara — an area where they were not contracted to operate.

The deaths resulted in the project being halted until early 2022, when the U.S. opened up applications to restart the contract.

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The new contract’s objectives align with a Solomon Islands request in a meeting in 2021, but the absence of a memorandum of understanding is a concern, according to Karen Galokale, permanent secretary for the Solomon Islands Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services.

“From the Norwegian People’s Aid experience, we want one,” Galokale said in an interview. “The activity is happening on our ground.”

Galokale was only informed of HALO Trust’s selection a day before the State Department publicly announced the selection in December, she said.

The U.S. is one of the biggest global contributors to weapons removal and abatement, having spent $4.7 billion on landmine clearance and UXO clean ups since 1993.

The contract for the HALO survey also includes increasing the skills and capacity for the Solomon Islands police to be able to address the issue, as well as public education on the dangers of UXO.

Surveying The Problem

HALO Trust’s on-the-ground work has not begun in earnest as equipment needs to be shipped to the nation and its staff of 12 Solomon Islanders needs to receive further training, according to Simon Conway, HALO Trust’s program development manager.

Starting in 2011, only basic UXO data has been collected by the Solomon Islands police, which has been constrained by a lack of funding and personnel.

“Previously, the survey that was done was dots on maps and, actually, we need to get a bit more sophisticated,” Conway said in a phone interview.

That involves creating more intricate maps that consider the depth and scope of contamination, proximity to infrastructure and people and the type of UXO.

“The last thing you want to do is to turn over 900 islands into a big, red, dangerous blob because that doesn’t help anyone,” Conway added.

A map of Honiara shows the sheer breadth of contamination with in the city, by isolating areas where the public reported sightings of unexploded bombs.
The Solomon Islands Royal Police Force bomb squad almost exclusively responds to reports of bombs from the public. It occasionally surveys, as noted in green, around Honiara International Airport. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2022

HALO Trust will parse historical records about battles, ammunition depots and post-war dumpsites. Its team also will gather information by interviewing the public.

Much of the former British colony’s infrastructure has roots in World War II with many of its airports and ports initially built for military purposes. Battlefields, old ammunition depots and dug-in positions will be mapped as well. Cleanup sites will be prioritized later, Conway said.

Honaira is spreading eastward on the island of Guadalcanal as Solomon Islanders seek work opportunities, leading to unofficial housing on former battlefields that are still heavily contaminated with UXO.

“The humanitarian imperative suggests that you should go the places that are most populated, so we do need to get into the places where we know there’s been a lot of bombing,” Conway said. “There may not be a lot of people there now, there may well be people in the future.”

It is not uncommon to find bombs in the jungles of the Solomon Islands, as well as the many former battlefields — on which people now live. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Room For Local Organizations

The Solomon Islands will be the 35-year-old de-mining organization’s first foray into the Pacific, having previously worked in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The disparate makeup of the nation poses logistical challenges, though Conway is confident the organization will be able to overcome them based on lessons taken from previous operations.

Conway said four Solomon Islanders who worked with Norwegian People’s  Aid in 2019 have been employed by HALO Trust and will travel to Laos and Cambodia to learn from the Southeast Asian operations.

While the U.S. funding goes to HALO, there is also an emerging private industry for UXO survey work in the Solomon Islands.

Safe Signals is a local outfit started by former police bomb technician Michael Makka.

Makka is hopeful HALO Trust will contract local, private operations to help in their work, as Norwegian People’s Aid had started to do in 2019.

“The government is not in a position to take up the funding for UXO projects,” Makka said. “Unless there’s assistance from Australia and U.S. and Japan for the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.”

While Makka welcomes the U.S. funding, he doubts $1 million is enough to complete the work noted in the contract.

“$1 million is not really enough for one year,” Makka says.

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