Emerging crisis in quake-hit PNG region

7:46 pm on 1 March 2018

Dozens of people died and possibly many more in Papua New Guinea's 7.5 earthquake on Monday amid mass landslides.

A landslide cutting of the road from Tambul to Mendi following a 7.5 earthquake.

A landslide cutting of the road from Tambul to Mendi following a 7.5 earthquake. Photo: Andrew Solomon

Disaster teams are yet to reach many parts of the Highlands which were hit hard by the earthquake, from which the extent of damage is only starting to emerge.

There is still no official death toll from the quake, but as accounts of the damage start to filter through fears are growing that it could be hundreds of dead rather than dozens. Many of the casualties are being attributed to landslides, others to collapsed buildings.

At least 30 people are reported to have been killed in Hela and Southern Highlands provinces. Reports from Western province indicate as many as ten people died there, buried in "an avalanche of mud and rocks".

The quake triggered many big landslides which have cut off access to hundreds of remote villages in the region. This has frustrated attempts by national and provincial disaster officials to reach most affected communities in the four worst-hit provinces - Hela, Southern Highlands, Western and Enga.

Extra police and military personnel have reportedly been deployed to the region, but are also limited in their movement. To compound limitations, communication links are still severely disrupted in Hela and Southern Highlands, where mobile phone towers were toppled by the quake.

Emerging crisis

Early reports from the Southern Highlands capital Mendi depicted widespread damage to buildings, roads and infrastructure in the province. Up to fourteen people are feared dead from landslides or building collapse in and around the town.

It's a similar story in the capital of Hela province, Tari, which is the closest major town to the quake's epicentre. Communication with Tari had largely been blocked until yesterday and remains patchy. Tari locals who RNZ Pacific has spoken to indicate there could have been as many as sixteen deaths in Tari.

A local man, Isaac Bulube, said that access to the main road out of Tari was blocked at several points by mud, and that destruction was all around.

"There's a lot of residents' places totally destroyed, and some entire families don't have a house to live in," he said.

"Most of the schools, their buildings have gone down; a lot of cracks on the roads, even Tari airport has a crack on the runway, making it impossible for planes to land. There's a lot of destruction."

Across the region, many of the quake's casualties appear to have been taken out by landslides. Aerial footage shows the quake triggered many big landslides which have blocked whole valleys and deformed substantial tracts of hillsides.

Video supplied by Bernard McQueen

According to Dave Petley, a Professor of GeoHazard and Risk at Durham University, the last event of mass landslides on this scale was China's Whenchuan earthquake in 2008.

"In that case over 200 landslide dams needed attention; a feat that stretched even the mighty resources of the Chinese military," Mr Petley explained.

"The capacity to deal with this in Papua New Guinea is much lower. This feels like a potential crisis to me."

As significant aftershocks continue, local communities remain fearful and in need of assistance. Government help can't come soon enough, but PNG's resources will be stretched to the limit to cope with this emerging crisis.

Government priority

PNG's government said its priority was to restore basic services to communities affected by the earthquake.

Because the mass landslides have wiped out many crop gardens, posing a big threat to regional food security, there is also an acute need for assistance in this area.

Down in PNG's capital Port Moresby, the prime minister Peter O'Neill held a press conference where he spoke of the country's huge recovery challenge ahead.


Landslips in the heart of oil and gas resources projects between Moro and Hides in the PNG Southern Highlands. Photo: Bernard McQueen

He said the government was working closely with all affected provincial governments to bring normalcy back to their communities and people.

"Making sure that the schools are open, the hospitals are open, the roads are open, so our people can get the services they truly deserve. That is our first and foremost priority. The second priority is of course that we want to get the economically significant valued projects for the nation back on track."

The quake was centered close to the gas fields of ExxonMobil's major LNG gas project, PNG's largest commercial venture and its main source of revenue.

Exxon, which sustained damage to infrastructure from the quake and has suspended operations, has evacuated hundreds of non-essential staff.

Mr O'Neill said the cost of the earthquake would be in the hundreds of millions of kina.

"We don't have that kind of money," he admitted.

"But we will try and manage the situation as best as possible through the limitations of budgets we have. But I can assure our people in the Hela province, the Southern Highlands province, Western Province and of course Enga province, that we will be giving them our top priority in the coming weeks."

Fears about cataclysm

People in Hela region have long believed that the natural gas in their mountains, now developed commercially by Exxon and its partners, has an explosive quality that would one day bring cataclysm.

Portion of the new Mendi - Kandep road has been destroyed following the 7.5 earthquake.

Portion of the new Mendi - Kandep road has been destroyed following the 7.5 earthquake. Photo: Andrew Solomon

The Secretary General of PNG's Red Cross, Uvenama Rova, said that as people in Hela experienced aftershocks every hour in the past few days, their anxiety has grown.

"People fear the gas might explode," he said.

Meanwhile, a Hela NGO worker, Moses Komengi of the Youth Ambassadors for Peace NGO, said that locals were particularly confused and fearful when they saw Exxon moving its staff out of the area so quickly.

"We can see the police and the company moving out in choppers. And ExxonMobil is evacuating all its personnel and employees out of the gas sites. So this is giving question to the people, why is this happening?" said Mr Komengi.

However PNG's Rabaul Volcanological Observatory has moved to quell concerns that long dormant volcanoes in the area may have become active.

It said satellite images showed no new activity at any old Highlands volcanoes.

"The 7.5 earthquake was tectonic in origin (too big to be volcanic). The aftershocks are the result of adjustments of strain within the region due to the initial large one on Saturday," the Observatory said in a release.

"It is very unlikely a tectonic earthquake will trigger a long dormant volcano immediately."

Australia will provide humanitarian aid to PNG after the devastating quake.

Australia is to send $US156,000 dollars worth of humanitarian support, including tarpaulins, water purification tablets, and water containers after a request from the PNG government.

Meanwhile a Hercules aircraft will continue to do aerial surveillance of damaged areas and to provide logistical support to the PNG Defence Force.

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