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Monday, June 17, 2024

Papua New Guinea landslide rescue ‘racing against time’: UN

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Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea – Rescuers are racing to find survivors after a landslide obliterated a Papua New Guinea village and killed an estimated 670 people, a UN official told AFP on Monday.

The once-bustling remote hillside village in Enga province was almost wiped out when a chunk of Mount Mungalo collapsed in the early hours of Friday morning, burying scores of homes and the people sleeping inside them.

“It has been already three days and seven hours since this disaster hit so basically we are racing against time but to what extent we might be able to bring people to safety is another issue,” said UN migration agency official Serhan Aktoprak.

Rescuers were working in hazardous conditions.

“Rocks continue to fall and move the ground,” he said.

“To make things worse, there is groundwater running underneath the debris which is turning the surface of the ground into a slide.”

About 250 homes nearby had been evacuated as a precaution, Aktoprak said.

Aid agencies and local leaders initially feared between 100 to 300 people had perished underneath the mud and rubble spanning almost four football fields in length.

But the estimated toll grew to 670 after local leaders and disaster workers reassessed the size of the population living there, the UN official said.

At least four bodies have been pulled from the debris, officials said.

– ‘Nobody escaped’ –

Heavy machinery and diggers had been set to arrive in the town on Sunday night.

But their transport was delayed by tribal violence — not associated with the landslide — along the only route not blocked by the disaster, Aktoprak said.

A schoolteacher from a neighbouring village, Jacob Sowai, said more than 2,000 people lived in the disaster zone.

“People are very sad. Nobody escaped. It’s very hard to collect information. Nobody escaped. We don’t know who died because records are buried,” he told AFP.

People from adjoining villages were helping to unearth bodies, said Nickson Pakea, president of the nearby Porgera Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Many people were using spades and hand tools.

“Because of the hard rock and the clay, the stone, and the rocks that came in, it is quite messy. It needs excavators to remove the debris,” Pakea told AFP.

A nearby mining joint venture, New Porgera Limited, had agreed to provide mechanical diggers to help the rescuers and clear roads, he said.

More than 1,000 people have been displaced by the catastrophe, aid agencies have estimated, with food gardens and water supplies destroyed.

At some points, the landslide — a mix of car-sized boulders, uprooted trees and churned-up earth — was thought to be eight metres (26 feet) deep.

– Heavy rains –

French President Emmanuel Macron said his country was “ready to contribute to relief and reconstruction efforts” in a social media message at the weekend.

US President Joe Biden earlier said he and First Lady Jill Biden were “heartbroken by the loss of life and devastation”.

Locals said the landslip may have been triggered by heavy rains that have saturated the region in recent weeks.

Papua New Guinea has one of the wettest climates in the world, according to the World Bank, with the heaviest downpours concentrated in the humid highland interior.

Research has found shifting rainfall patterns linked to climate change could exacerbate the risk of landslides.

Since the start of the year, the country has experienced multiple earthquakes, floods and landslides, stretching the resources of emergency services.

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