UNICEF appeal and a landslide in Papua New GuineaThe quake devastating triggered landslides across a swath of the huge island’s interior. [photo: UNICEF]

Papua New Guinea has been struggling to cope with the aftermath of its worst earthquake in nearly a century, which triggered devastating landslides across a swath of the huge island’s interior. Relief efforts, already hampered by the rugged terrain and poor infrastructure, were further disrupted by a strong series of aftershocks, which added to the damage to roads, airstrip runways and phone lines.

The authorities were left scrambling for details of the damage and casualties, the Guardian reported. In his blog Garun Blong Mi (‘My Land’ in PNG’s official pidgin language, Tok Pisin), Sylvester Gawi, a National Broadcasting Corporation journalist in PNG, said it took almost a week for the country’s National Disaster Centre to draw up any statistics on the numbers of people affected in Southern Highlands and Hela provinces.

The epicentre of the powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake was 81km south-west of Porgera, in the Southern Highlands, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), which estimated that about 56,000 people would have experienced ‘severe shaking’ and up to $100m of damage may have been caused. This initial quake was followed by an aftershock of 6.3 magnitude with an epicentre about 60km away near Mendi, a further tremor measuring 6.7 in the same region on 6 March and a 6.8-magnitude quake off the coast of New Ireland.

Villages wiped out

Reports were only slowly coming in from the most remote areas, such as an account of villages in the Jam valley being completely wiped out by landslides after mountain lakes poured downhill. Andy Hamaga, chairman of the Hides PDL7 Special Purpose Authority, told Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier: ‘The people were caught by surprise when they heard rumbling noises believed to be the noise of the angry lakes, making their way out from where they used to be, rushing and crashing down hill and bumping into big mountains as the shake continued from the earthquake.

‘We have never seen something like this before and not even during our ancestors’ times. The lakes that existed thousands of years have been forced from their location … it is really unusual to experience aftershocks for almost three weeks.’

William Bando, Hela province’s administrator, said: ‘Our people live in scattered hamlets and people are dying slowly – the only means of rescue is through helicopters and they are hardly coming.’ Frances Devlin, of the International Committee for the Red Cross, said one of the main concerns now was about survivors’ mental health and access to clean water – with the threat that muddy or polluted water would spread diarrhoeal diseases. ‘Traditional sources of water have been interrupted,’ she told the Guardian. ‘In rural areas where they are more likely to have collected water from a creek, often those creeks have been covered up by landslides and the population were too scared to go in and dig, to reclaim the access.’

Rising fatalities

By mid-March officials had confirmed the deaths of 145 people but the number was expected to keep rising steeply as more information came in from remote areas. At least 35,000 people had been displaced across Southern Highlands and Hela provinces, Radio New Zealand Pacific (RNZ) reported, and the United Nations children’s agency, Unicef, launched an appeal to help some 270,000 people urgently in need of humanitarian aid, including 125,000 children. Andreas Wüstenberg, Unicef’s emergency coordinator, said: ‘[Food] stocks are rapidly depleting. We’re not yet seeing a high increase in malnutrition in children but we’re expecting that will rise quite quickly. One of the main concerns is also the spread of disease, especially in this makeshift camp.’

Aid workers reported rumours that blamed the earthquakes on sanguma, or witchcraft. In a country where hundreds of women and girls accused of this are regularly tortured and murdered every year, it became a further worry. Anna Bryan, Care Australia’s director in PNG, told the Guardian: ‘We are hearing reports that some locals believe the earthquake was caused by sorcery, and a lot of people have also been blaming the mines in the region. People are getting frustrated and angrier, and I do think we’ll see an increase in threats towards aid workers and government support workers as well.’

Joseph Tondop, Southern Highlands police commander, told RNZ there had been extensive damage to public infrastructure like roads, bridges, public schools, hospital facilities … the rural health centres and health posts have been severely damaged and affected from basically the whole of Southern Highlands province.’

Australia and New Zealand began flights of C-130 transport aircraft to bring in food, medical supplies, tarpaulins, water containers and bed mats, with Chinook helicopters and military personnel made available to distribute the aid. ExxonMobil suspended operations at its $19bn liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the Hides concession, which is the country’s biggest export earner. Hamaga criticised the government’s relief efforts. ‘Whilst the government team has failed its people, ExxonMobil, the developer of the PNG LNG project, has been dispatching food and relief supplies to the people, which is very commendable,’ he said.

About 75% of the world’s seismic energy is released at the edge of the Pacific. Papua New Guinea experiences a high rate of seismic activity, with 23 other earthquakes of magnitude 6 or above occurring within 250km of the epicentre over the preceding century, the USGS said. With PNG at the juncture of the major Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, it can expect many more of this size. The question is, will PNG be any better prepared next time?

Gawi described one community trying to cope with the quakes’ aftermath in his blog. The 675 survivors in Homapawa village were camped at their local church – the only building still standing. Ten deaths had been confirmed but they feared more would follow if they did not receive food, fresh drinking water, clothes and shelter.

Lessons have been learned, Gawi said: ‘The National Disaster team should be the first people on ground after the disaster strikes…They must be the first to make contact with the affected people, not turning up a week later only to find out that people died while waiting to receive treatment.’