Nearly six months since a magnitude 7.5 quake struck Papua New Guinea’s Highlands region, response efforts are transiting from the relief phase into one of recovery
The quake, which was centred in Hela province, was followed by significant aftershocks and landslides, affected several provinces.
The disaster killed at least 180 people, caused widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure and – according to the UN – directly affected over 500-thousand people.
PNG’s Emergency Controller, Bill Hamblin, told Johnny Blades the response is moving into the recovery phase.
BILL HAMBLIN: We’re still doing relief work in some areas. We’re still supplying food and not so much water these days, but purification tablets and water purification systems. We’re also providing what we call re-starter kits. And they’re kits that are given to villages to help them re-establish their livelihoods, build their houses again – nails, hammers, saws, digging forks etc. We provide seeds for regrowth of veges etc. And we’ve bought portable sawmills which we’ve given to District Development Authorities to cut timber for these houses at the village level. And there’s some others which we’ve given chainsaws to, which they saw call slab mills, and they cut it with a chainsaw so its rough-sawn.
JOHNNY BLADES: And this is in three provinces or more?
BH: Five. I think the important thing to understand is that PNG has had numerous natural disasters before. We’ve had earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc etc. But this is the first time that we’ve had a disaster that has been spread over has been five different provinces (Hela, Southern Highlands, Western, Enga and West Sepik) and it’s had differing effects in each one of those provinces. So when you look at the earthquake you can’t just have one solution that you put out there in all five provinces, it’s quite different. And the geography of those provinces is quite different, ranging from swamplands to high mountainous country. This presented complex logistic challenges.
JB: Sounds like a bit of a logistical nightmare…
BH: It is because, in some cases… well in Hela and Southern Highlands particularly, we’ve had road closures due to the landslips that occurred, and occurred again after the initial earthquake with subsequent tremors. So that brought down, closed those roads. A lot of those places, the airports were also damaged, and had to be repaired, so we couldn’t get planes in there initially. The roads took time to repair, so really the only way to move everything was by helicopter in those locations. Then you’ve had what we call the downstream effects of the earthquake, which became evident a week or two or three weeks after the earthquake, that was when we started to see the effects of landslips going into rivers and creating sedimentation in those rivers, such that it killed fish that were in those rivers and things like turtles, prawns etc. And it also – in Western province and Gulf province – one of the main staples of the diet is to get the sago from the sago palm. Well they were unable with the filthy water to wash that sago, and it went rotten, a lot of it. so the sago disappeared from their diet, and the fish and the prawns disappeared. Well when you’re a subsistence farmer, and that disappears, there’s not a lot left to eat. So that was a different problem to what we were having in the other provinces where we still had care centres created where people were so scared of the aftershocks, they gathered together in these care centres. I would suggest those care centres are a misnomer. They’re aggregation points for people. There wasn’t much care available at that stage because we couldn’t get in there. So we’ve had to try and support those care centres and the people in them since. Thankfully a lot of the people have gone back from those care centres. But there’s still a number of care centres we have. Then there’s the situation where entire villages like Yalanda village in Southern Highlands province which were completely wiped out. I met a lady today, she’s about one of the survivors of that village. And those villages now have to be relocated completely from where they are, and they have to try and re-start their lives. It’s very costly to start moving what was left of a village to a new location, and put roads in etc.
JB: That must be difficult with finding land?
BH: Well land is a perpetual issue in PNG. Landownership is always an issue. And when you move from one spot to another, it’s ok if it’s on your land. But if it’s on someone else’s ancestral lands then you’re going to have a real issue. So those things have got to be sorted out.
JB: Who is overseeing that, who is managing that?
BH: Well in most parts the villagers themselves are negotiating where to go. And they’re asking various companies and others to support that transfer of people.
JB: Those various downstream effects – some of which you described before – what can you do about that? Do they just have to wait? It’s not like you can get works vehicles up there to unblock a river…
BH: If you’re in western province, you’ll find there’s almost no roads. So you’ve got this great area of effectively swamp. So there is no metal to build roads. So if you want to build a road there you’ve got to import the gravel into that province. So the cost of building a road there is very significant. That’s why there aren’t those roads there. So when you’re dealing in that area, it’s all by banana boat, or it is by barge or helicopter into those areas. There’s no other way to get into them.
Dr Hamblin says there’s still a lot or repair work to be done in these provinces, and highlighted health facilities as an area in particular need of assistance.
Source: Radio New Zealand