Remote communities in Papua New Guinea devastated by landslide

Search and rescue efforts are underway to find survivors of the landslide disaster. Photo: Getty Images.

Remote communities in Papua New Guinea have been devastated by a catastrophic landslide that struck the Enga province on 24 May at approximately 3 am. This meant that most people were sleeping at the time of the disaster and had little time to run to safety.  

Hundreds are feared dead, with the United Nations estimating that at least 670 people may have lost their lives, and this toll could reach the thousands. The total population of the entire affected ward is near 4,000 people. However, this number could be higher due to an increased number of displaced people living in the area. 

The ongoing search and rescue operations are facing challenges due to the hazardous terrain and the continuous threat of landslides. The affected area remains highly unstable, which is slowing down search and rescue efforts. 

We are hearing distressing stories about villagers digging through the debris with their bare hands trying to find their relatives’ remains. The affected communities are asking for spades and shovels to help with the digging. Given that the landslide happened in the middle of the night, it is unfathomable to imagine what it must be like for families who have lost their loved ones without warning and are now scrambling to find their remains for a proper burial.

Jessica Stone, Caritas Australia’s Humanitarian Emergencies Coordinator

Unfortunately, this is not the first fatal landslide to strike Papua New Guinea in 2024. At least 21 people died in three separate landslides across the country in mid-March, and an additional 14 people lost their lives in a separate incident in April. 

Papua New Guinea is vulnerable to various natural disasters due to its geographical location, topography, and climate. The country's mountainous terrain and heavy rainfall patterns make it susceptible to landslides and mudslides, particularly in areas with deforestation and soil erosion. 

We are still concerned about the ongoing potential risk of landslides, and it remains hard to access the affected area after a bridge between Enga and the rest of the Highlands collapsed on Tuesday. Another concern is the fragile security context, as the region is known for land disputes and clan disputes, which can erupt into violence with little warning.

Jessica Stone, Caritas Australia’s Humanitarian Emergencies Coordinator

The impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, sea level rise, and altered precipitation patterns, further exacerbate the Pacific nation’s vulnerability to natural disasters. These changes can intensify the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. 

Caritas Australia’s partners are currently on-the-ground in Papua New Guinea and are conducting a rapid needs assessment in the affected villages to determine the most urgent priorities. So far, the Wabag Diocese is responding by providing food to those directly affected by the disaster. They are also helping provide medical supplies at healthcare centres to all those who have been injured. 

As rescue efforts continue, those who have lost their homes will urgently need food, clothing, medical assistance, blankets, household items, shelter and clean water in the weeks and months ahead.  

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