Writing from Papua New Guinea, Julia Edwards details the impact of the recent earthquake in the country, the conditions on the ground in its aftermath, and the need for greater international recognition of the crisis.
In the early hours of 26 February, a major earthquake (magnitude-7.5) stuck the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea. It has resulted in dozens of unconfirmed deaths, hundreds of injuries, and extensive infrastructural damage. Thirty-five kilometres deep, the epicentre of the earthquake was in Southern Highlands Province, with neighbouring Hela Province and parts of Western Highlands Province also very badly affected.
“People are still bewildered and traumatised by the severe events of last Monday morning”, said the Bishop of Hela Region, Wai Tege. “Families continue to sleep outside for fear of the ongoing aftershocks. People of the highlands are not used to the impact of natural disasters, and this Magnitude 7.5 earthquake has taken everyone by surprise.”
While many of the outer islands of Papua New Guinea sit on the seismically-active Pacific ‘ring of fire’, the Central Highlands region of the main island of Papua New Guinea has been relatively immune to the impact of earthquakes. According to the Geohazards Management division of the Department of Mineral Policy and Geohazards Management, the last major earthquake to hit the region was in 1922, almost a century ago.
Full news of the destruction from the earthquake remains incomplete, in part because of the remoteness of the region – some settlements are several days walk away from the nearest town. But telecommunications services have also been severely disrupted, limiting the transfer of information and also the use of social media accounts. Very little news of the disaster has reached the United Kingdom, despite the extensive scale of the destruction and the impact on human lives.
Local reports indicate that landslides have been one of the main cause of death and injury, as people and properties were buried when steep hillsides gave way. The quake occurred at 3.44 am local time, while most people were asleep.
Very little news of the disaster has reached the United Kingdom, despite the extensive scale of the destruction and the impact on human lives.
Scottish-based Alastair McIntosh, a former VSO volunteer in Papua New Guinea had previously visited one of the most-badly-affected areas, Hela Province, in 1980. Recalling the area, McIntosh said: “The landslides will have been a disaster. Most villages are of flimsy materials on precipitous slopes planted with coffee and sweet potato gardens. The roads are hair raising.”
MacIntosh’s last point is pertinent. Getting access to those most affected by the earthquake is now proving to be a huge problem. The only major road, the Highlands Highway, that connects all the main towns of the Highlands, was vertically displaced in several places by the quake and still remains blocked by landslides between Mendi – the capital of Southern Highlands – and Tari, the capital of Hela Province.
Regional airports – the only link to the national capital, Port Moresby – have been closed; school buildings have collapsed, and reportedly, hospitals are so full that they have had to turn patients away. Mendi Hospital, the primary health centre for the Southern Highlands Province, is closed because all its medical equipment, including the hospital generator, were destroyed in the quake.
A state of emergency was declared by the government of Papua New Guinea on 1 March and it allocated K100 million (roughly £24 million) to the immediate relief efforts. It also established a Restoration Authority to manage the long-term recovery of the affected area.
Mendi Hospital, the primary health centre for the Southern Highlands Province, is closed because all its medical equipment, including the hospital generator, were destroyed in the quake.
Churches in Papua New Guinea were among the swiftest to react to the crisis. Initial response-and-recovery planning meetings between the United Church head office and key disaster-response representatives from Hela Province and Southern Highlands were held within 48-hours of the quake. And on 1 March, ExxonMobil PNG Limited helicoptered an emergency team of assessors into Hela Province. The team comprised representatives from the United Church, the Salvation Army, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), and Caritas (the Catholic Agency for International Aid and Development). Prior to the arrival of the emergency team on the ground, only aerial assessments had been undertaken of the affected area.
Priorities for the on-the-ground assessment team included undertaking rapid assessments of damage, identifying immediate needs, and establishing how resources can be mobilised. A second team of assessors from the United Church, including an ordained former engineer, arrived in Mendi, Southern Highlands on 3 March.
After the initial rapid-needs-assessment phase is complete, the seven churches of the Papua New Guinea Church Partnership Program – the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, Baptist Union of Papua New Guinea, Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, and United Church in Papua New Guinea – will work together to manage the two control centres in Tari and Mendi towns for the coordination of relief supplies. A third centre, in Mount Hagen, Western Highlands Province, is being manged by the Baptist Union.
We will need to work closely, and intelligently, with government and other agencies to ensure efficiency in the recovery task, and also to avoid duplication of resources and efforts.
Local ministers, pastors and other church leaders are also assisting in the detailed data-gathering and recovery task. They are well-placed to do this given that they have already gained the trust of local people, and possess a detailed understanding of the make-up of the communities in which they serve. And in many cases, they have previous experience of such work, having played a vital role in the El Niño response of 2015-16, when severe drought and frost threatened food security in the Highlands.
But these important short-term tasks will need to evolve into something which is meaningful over the longer term. We will need to work closely, and intelligently, with government and other agencies to ensure efficiency in the recovery task, and also to avoid duplication of resources and efforts. And while the affected people in the Highlands are trying their best to support each other at this challenging time, external financial assistance is required to ensure long-term recovery.
Donations for the Papua New Guinea earthquake appeal can be made by clicking here
Dr Julia Edwards works as a climate change and emergency disaster risk reduction consultant with the United Church in Papua New Guinea.
Feature image: People gather at collapsed buildings in the aftermath of the earthquake. Image: strangesounds.org