13 Mar 2018

Extent of PNG disaster likely under-reported, says NZ Minister

12:05 pm on 13 March 2018

New Zealand's Defence Minister says the damage from Papua New Guinea's earthquake disaster appears to be under-reported.

A landslide cutting of the tambul mendi road following a 7.5 earthquake.

A landslide cutting of the tambul mendi road following a 7.5 earthquake. Photo: Andrew Solomon

Ron Mark has just been in PNG to sign a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement covering provision of security at the APEC leaders summit in PNG later this year.

Mr Mark said the 7.5-magnitude quake two weeks ago and subsequent large quakes, from which the death toll is now over 110, had understandably diverted PNG's attention from APEC preparations.

He said he discussed the situation at length with PNG's government whose capacity to respond to the disaster is being severely challenged.

"They are worried about the impact of not only roads being cut, but of traditional footpaths and tracks that have been the main supply route for certain villages. It's clear that many of those tracks and roads have been interdicted and are hampering people's ability to sustain life."

The minister said while information about the PNG quake disaster was only coming through in "dribs and drabs", the PNG government indicated it was concerned that the death toll was higher than what has been reported.

"It's clear to us and from our Foreign Affairs staff at the High Commission that those figures that have been quoted are under-reported, under-estimated, because they're actually unknown.

"It's just a shame that we don't get the same level of attention on Papua New Guinea right now through international media that we've had on other disasters," he reflected.

Since the quake, the challenge facing the PNG government in preparing for hosting APEC in November had become even steeper, according to Mr Mark.

New Zealand's government remained committed to helping PNG host a successful summit. But the minister said support from the likes of Australia, New Zealand, the US Japan and Indonesia for APEC security and infrastructure preparations didn't obscure the fact that PNG would be stretched to manage it.

"We've noted that their defence budget was cut by about thirteen percent. We've noted that their police budget has been cut. We've noted that they're facing huge challenges, and there'll be a very clear reputational challenge for them in the sense that they have to run a successful APEC, and all within the constraints."

Meanwhile, New Zealand's Defence Force has been working with PNG to provide disaster relief to Highlands communities affected by the quake and subsequent aftershocks.

Last week, an RNZAF C130 Hercules Aircraft carrying emergency relief supplies flew to Port Moresby. Mr Mark expressed frustration that the Hercules broke down after a day in PNG, but he said New Zealand personnel had continued to work with Australian counterparts in PNG to help with the relief operations.

Ron Mark

Ron Mark Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"We've replaced that Herc with another one and it's been doing brilliantly," Mr Mark said.

"I've got to say, my observations were that the size and extent of the damage and loss of life appears to be under-reported."

The NZDF remained on hand to assist PNG with the disaster response in any way it could, the minister explained.

New Zealand has committed an initial $US363,000 to help PNG's emergency response.

PNG lake wall collapse claims 10 lives

The death toll from the Papua New Guinea earthquakes is continuing to rise.

Another 10 deaths were confirmed at the weekend after the discovery that three villages were destroyed by flooding and landslides last week.

The Post Courier reported the villages, with a total population of 47, and located in the Jam Valley between Hela and Western Province, were hit with a deluge of water and mud after the walls around three mountain lakes gave way.

The disaster happened on Wednesday but was not discovered by outsiders until Sunday.

Ten people were buried alive and 27 others hurt.

The paper said this took the death toll to 110 while unconfirmed reports of other deaths were still coming in.

Earlier, a UK-based geohazards specialist had warned that the mass landslides caused by the PNG quake could create highly destructive floods.

Dave Petley told RNZ Pacific that significant volumes of water can build up behind dams created by landslides and then spill over, posing a risk which needed urgent assessment from PNG and its partners.

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