Disaster relief efforts pick up pace in quake-hit PNG

11:48 am on 12 March 2018

Papua New Guinea's parliament will meet in the coming days to formalise state-of-emergency provisions following the major earthquake in the Highlands.

According to the government, this includes establishing a restoration authority to oversee recovery efforts in affected provinces, particularly Hela and Southern Highlands.

PNG Prime MInister Peter O'Neill consoles a woman in earthquake-affected Hela province.

PNG Prime MInister Peter O'Neill consoles a woman in earthquake-affected Hela province. Photo: PNG PM Media Office

The total number of reported deaths from the quake and aftershocks has passed 100, but the toll is expected to rise as response teams reach affected communities cut off by landslides.

Disaster relief efforts are finally picking up pace, two weeks after the quake in Hela. According to Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, food and water supplies were being distributed to the area, including to Hela's provincial capital Tari, which had previously been cut off by road due to landslides.

"Trucks have also reached Tari, and the Provincial Authority has containers of food which are being delivered by church groups working with our disciplined services," said Mr O'Neill in a statement.

This comes after numerous reports from people in the quake-hit area itself that relief supplies were very slow in coming, with transport links still severely disrupted by impacts of the major quake.

"Further attention is now being given to the establishment of water purification facilities so as to reduce demand for bottled water," the prime minister explained.

Although, Mr O'Neill lashed out at PNG's parliamentary opposition over criticism it made about the speed of government's response to the quake, he admitted that PNG's capabilities were limited.

He said he was thankful for the Australian government allowing its Defence Force C-130 Hercules aircraft and CH-47 Chinook helicopters to load and uplift relief supplies for PNG's remote quake-hit areas.

"The PNG Defence Force does not have these aircraft and we are grateful for that help," the prime minister said.

The leader also cited the help from New Zealand, China and Israel among other countries, as well as companies Oil Search and ExxonMobil in the disaster response.

Mr O'Neill said the focus of government was to maintain relief operations and continue to restore services in the disaster area.

"The government has allocated an initial 2 million Kina to areas worst hit by the earthquake, and another 1 million Kina to areas that had other damage to infrastructure," he said, referring to individual affected districts.

Members of a quake-hit community in PNG's Hela province, March 2018.

Members of a quake-hit community in PNG's Hela province, March 2018. Photo: PNG PM Media Office

Independent investigation

The prime minister has told PNG media that an independent team of experts from Australia will investigate and review the cause of the earthquake.

This was in response to quake-traumatised communities in Hela, including elected representatives, who sought answers about how the disaster could occur in a region not used to quakes.

Much of the speculation had centred on the operations of PNG's LNG gas project, whose gas fields are centred in the region around the quake's epicentre.

The project operator, ExxonMobil, has suspended its operations and closed its gas plant in Hela while it assesses damage to its infrastructure. However, some local communities already aggrieved at a perceived lack of benefits from the project have blamed the earthquake on the project.

The prime minister has told local media that there was no proof in such claims that the project was linked to the quake. Nonetheless he has still given the nod to a probe.

"I went to Tari (on Wednesday) and some of the people were concerned that this earthquake will cause more destruction," Mr O'Neill told the newspaper The National.

"They wanted an independent review and report on what is happening. In that regard, I have already asked the Australian government to provide us with experts to review the cause of the earthquake."

Meanwhile, Mr O'Neill has said his People's National Congress Party is to hold a Fund-raising Dinner next month for the business community to make contributions to earthquake relief efforts.

The prime minister's own electorate, Ialibu-Pangia in Southern Highlands, is one of the districts significantly affected by the quake. Along with several ministers in his government whose electorates were also hit, Mr O'Neill has visited the affected the region at least twice since the disaster occurred.

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