Thousands in Papua New Guinea ordered to evacuate amid concerns about second landslide

Thousands in Papua New Guinea ordered to evacuate amid concerns about second landslide

By abc.net.au
Wednesday 29/05/2024
It is not known exactly how many people are buried beneath the rubble. (Juho Valta/UNDP Papua New Guinea via AP)

Authorities have ordered thousands of people near a deadly landslide in Papua New Guinea to evacuate, amid fears a second landslide could occur.

The United Nations has also warned of an outbreak of disease at the site, with bodies still trapped under rubble near drinking water streams after five days.

The first Australian emergency responders have arrived in PNG, with the Australian government pledging both manpower and supplies for those displaced by the disaster.

A mass of boulders, earth and splintered trees devastated Yambali PNG's remote highlands when a limestone mountainside sheared away Friday.

Enga provincial administrator Sandis Tsaka told AFP that people were trying to evacuate.

"Every hour you can hear rock breaking — it is like a bomb or gunshot and the rocks keep falling down," Mr Tsaka said.

The Enga official initially put the number to be evacuated at almost 7,900, but later said that was in fact the estimated population in the area affected by the landslide.

"Most of them are on notice," he said, without giving a new figure for the number of evacuees.

"People are being asked to relocate to ensure safety."

He said as many people as possible would be evacuated on Wednesday.

Chief of the International Organization for Migration's mission in Papua New Guinea, Serhan Aktoprak, said the blanket of debris has become more unstable with recent rain and streams trapped between the ground and debris.

"This is a major concern. The movement of the land, the debris, is causing a serious risk, and overall the total number of people that may be affected might be 6,000 or more," he said.

That includes villagers whose source of clean drinking water has been buried and subsistence farmers who lost their vegetable gardens.

"If this debris mass is not stopped, if it continues moving, it can gain speed and further wipe out other communities and villages further down [the mountain]," he said.

The UN agency estimates 670 villagers died, while Papua New Guinea's government has told the United Nations it thinks more than 2,000 people were buried.

The UN estimates 150 structures have been buried in the landslide.

Six bodies had been retrieved from the rubble by Tuesday.

'We thank God for saving our lives'

Amid the ongoing tragedy, remarkable stories of survival are beginning to emerge.

Yambali couple John and Jacklyn Yandam spoke of being trapped in the rubble for eight hours on Friday morning before they were dug out by neighbours.

Large fallen boulders had formed a barrier that prevented the couple from being crushed in their house by tumbling rubble.

They said they would have remained trapped without their neighbours' help.

"We thank God for saving our lives at that moment," Ms Yandam told Papua New Guinea's National Broadcasting Corporation.

"We were certain that we were going to die, but the big rocks didn't crush us," she added.

The UN is helping to shelter 1,600 displaced people in Enga province.

In a statement it tallied the affected population at 7,849, including people who might need to be evacuated or relocated.

The UN said 42 per cent of those people were younger than 16 years old.

Relocating survivors to safer ground has been a priority for days and evacuation centres have been established on either side of the debris heap, which is up to 8 metres high and sprawling over an area the UN says is equivalent to three or four football fields.

Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said 750 family-sized shelters had been sent to support those displaced.

Concerns about disease spreading

Scenes of villagers digging with their bare hands through muddy debris in search of their relatives' remains were also concerning agencies on the ground.

"My biggest fear at the moment is corpses are decaying ... water is flowing and this is going to pose serious health risks in relation to contagious diseases," Mr Aktoprak said.

The UN agency raised those concerns at a disaster management virtual meeting of national and international responders on Tuesday.

The warning comes as geotechnical experts and heavy earth-moving equipment are expected to reach the site soon.

The Papua New Guinea government on Sunday officially asked the United Nations for additional help and to coordinate contributions from individual nations.

Australia's Minister for Emergency Management, Murray Watt, said the team includes geohazard assessment specialists and drones to help map the site.

"Their role will be particularly helping perform geotechnical surveillance to establish the level of the landslip, the instability of the land there, obviously doing some work around identifying where bodies are," Mr Watt said.

The Australian government has offered long-term logistical support for clearing debris, recovering bodies and supporting displaced people.

The government announced an initial aid package of $2.5 million.

Aid delivery hampered by bridge collapse

Country director of for humanitarian agency CARE International, Justine McMahon, said earth-moving equipment used by Papua New Guinea's military was expected to arrive soon, after traveling from the city of Lae, 400 kilometres to the east of the affected zone.

The landslide buried a 200-metre stretch of the province's main highway. Officials said Tuesday that the highway had been cleared from Yambali to the provincial capital Wabag through to Lae.

"One of the complicating factors was the destruction of parts of the road plus the instability of the ground, but they have some confidence that they can take in heavy equipment today," Ms McMahon said Tuesday.

Another complicating factor was long-time tribal warfare in Enga province, that has forced aid workers to travel in security convoys toward Yambali.

An excavator donated by a local builder on Sunday became the first piece of heavy earth-moving machinery brought in to help villagers who have been digging with shovels and farming tools to find bodies.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said an Australian air force C-17 Globemaster, a four-engine transport jet capable of carrying 77 metric tonnes of cargo, was already bringing supplies from Australia to Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby.

Two smaller Australian air force turboprop transport planes were already at Port Moresby, which is 600 kilometres south-east of the devastated village.

"There is more that we are seeking to do, but to be frank, part of the issue here is about not overwhelming a system which is currently under a lot of stress," Mr Marles told parliament.

The smaller C-130 Hercules and C-27J Spartan transport planes are to fly supplies from the capital to Mount Hagen, the capital of Western Highlands province, from where the cargo would travel by road to neighbouring Enga province.

That plan took a blow with news that a bridge between Mount Hagen and Wabag collapsed on Tuesday, officials said.

The cause of the collapse was not explained, but it was unrelated to the landslide.

A detour would add two or three hours to the journey, with efforts underway to repair the bridge.

Papua New Guinea is a diverse, developing nation with 800 languages and 10 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers.

Story By: ABC with wires

Original Story link: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-05-29/evacuations-prepared-in-png-amid-fears-of-second-landslide/103905100

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