Politics & News

Papua New Guinea: More Than 2000 Feared Buried in Landslide

The Papua New Guinea National Disaster Centre has said that the massive landslide that hit the country on Friday buried more than 2000 people and has formally asked for international help.

The government said that dangerous and unstable terrain and the difficulty of delivering aid to the site diminishes the hopes of finding survivors. The landslide occurred in the mountainous Enga region in northern Papua New Guinea. This last figure is a sharp rise from previous estimates.

New Estimate

In a letter to the UN resident coordinator, seen by Reuters and the Associated Press (AP), the acting director of the National Disaster Center Luseta Laso Mana said that the landslide “buried more than 2000 people alive” and caused “major destruction” at Yambali village in the Enga province.

Papua New Guinea: More than 2000 Feared Buried in Landslide
People search for survivors

The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated on Sunday the possible death toll at more than 670 people. The agency has not changed its estimate, waiting for new evidence.

Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the UN migrant agency’s mission in Papua New Guinea, said: “We are not able to dispute what the government suggests but we are not able to comment on it. As time goes in such a massive undertaking, the number will remain fluid.”

Massive Landslide

On Friday, a massive landslide hit Yambali village at around 3 am, while most of the people were asleep. According to local officials, the landslide buried more than 150 houses in debris and the area continues to pose an “extreme risk” due to the falling rocks and unstable ground soil.

It is difficult to determine the scale of the disaster given the challenging conditions on the ground, including the village’s remote location, lack of telecommunications, and tribal warfare in the region that necessitates military escorts to aid convoys. This has slowed the arrival of heavy equipment and aid. Rescue teams have retrieved six bodies so far.

Papua New Guinea: More than 2000 Feared Buried in Landslide
People search for survivors

Mana wrote in his letter that the situation “remains unstable” due to the shifting ground, “posing ongoing danger to both the rescue teams and survivors alike.” He warned that the landslide would have a major economic impact on the country.

Increased Risk

While rescue efforts are still underway, relief workers face increased risk. According to Serhan Aktoprak, rain, treacherous terrain, and flowing water are making it more dangerous for rescue teams and residents to clear debris.

The landslide had buried a 200-meter stretch of the province’s main highway under debris 6 to 8 meters deep, creating a major obstacle to relief workers.

Aktoprak said that soil and debris could shift again, adding to the risk. As officials urge people to evacuate, residents abandoned more than 250 homes, causing more than 1,250 people to displace.

Papua New Guinea: More than 2000 Feared Buried in Landslide
House buried under landslide

Justine McMahon, director of aid group CARE International Papua New Guinea, told the Guardian: “Many of the houses are buried under eight meters of dirt so if the land doesn’t stabilize then it has to be done predominantly by hand then that will take a significant amount of time.”

He explained that the majority of houses in the area “are made out of bush materials so they’re not strong [enough] to withstand a small landslide, let alone something of this scale.”

Aktoprak noted that some local residents reject the entry of heavy machinery and excavators to the village, saying they would interrupt their mourning. “At this point, people I think are realizing that the chances are very slim, that anyone can basically be taken out alive,” he said.

Tribal Violence

The region has been subject to tribal violence, adding to security concerns over the safety of aid workers. According to a UN agency official, violence killed eight people, and five shops and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday.

In February, Papua New Guinea gave arrest powers to the military, after tribal violence killed at least 26 men in an ambush.

Unknown Causes

Papua New Guinea, a Pacific-island nation and home to 10 million people, has vast mountainous terrain and lacks adequate road network. In this regard, Pierre Rognon, an associate professor from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering, said that this makes it “particularly challenging” for rescuers to find survivors after a landslide.

“Landslides can bury collapsed structures and people under dozens of meters of geomaterials,” he told CNN. “They can move structures and trap people over hundreds of meters. No one can predict exactly where potential survivors may be located and where to start looking for them,” Rognon added.

More than 2000 Feared Buried in Landslide
People search for survivors using heavy machinery

The causes of this landslide are still unclear. However, geology professor Alan Collins from the University of Adelaide pointed out it occurred in a region that witnesses “considerable rainfall.”

He said: “Although the landslide does not appear to have been directly triggered by an earthquake, frequent earthquakes caused by plates colliding build steep slopes and high mountains that can become very unstable.”

According to Collins, rainfall could have changed the minerals forming the bedrock, weakening the rock that makes the steep hillsides. “Vegetation mitigates this as tree roots can stabilize the ground and deforestation can make landslides more prevalent by destroying this biological mesh,” he said.

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