BANGKOK — A mountainous, forested region with areas inaccessible by road even in normal times, Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands province has proven challenging grounds for earthquake response.
On Feb. 26, a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the fertile province, damaging schools and hospitals and triggering landslides that leveled villages and crops. Three weeks later, the mountains are still shaking, with more than 100 aftershocks reported since the quake.
Aid groups are struggling to access the worst-hit areas, including in the province of Hela, to determine damage and needs. An estimated half a million people have been affected, with 270,000 in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, including 55,000 children under 5 particularly vulnerable to injuries, hunger, and disease, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and UNICEF.
In some cases, disparities in available information has been a challenge to coordinating aid efforts. Recent International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ rapid assessments, for example, did not find the widespread damage and unmet need in certain areas that other agencies are reporting, according to IFRC Operations Coordinator for Asia-Pacific Mathieu Léonard.
“After we met with authorities, we went and assessed a few areas, and our conclusion did not result in the same figures. The feeling we have is probably some of these figures have been inflated,” he said of IFRC’s several trips to villages near the epicenter of the quake.
IFRC, which is currently focused on relief, assessments, and hygiene promotion, visited one makeshift shelter area where 2,000 people were reportedly sleeping at night, but didn’t observe indications of that large a number of displaced people. Still, disparity in figures doesn’t mean there isn’t “urgent need” in many of the affected villages that aid has yet to reach, he stressed.
The official death toll has been reported as 145, and concern is now growing for water and sanitation, food security, and psychosocial support for survivors, especially while the current response relies heavily on air support.
“A lot of villages have been cut off by road because of landslides, a lot of these places are now only accessible by helicopter, and not all of them have been reached yet,” UNICEF's emergency coordinator in Papua New Guinea, Andreas Wuestenberg, told Devex.
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Wuestenberg recently returned to Port Moresby, the nation’s capital, from a small village in Southern Highlands, where he estimates 70 percent of the houses had been destroyed. About half of the village population of 1,000 is now residing in an area of makeshift shelters, which poses immediate risks in terms of sanitation, hygiene, and disease outbreak, he said.
At least 35,000 people have been displaced overall, according to reports from the Papua New Guinea police force.
Even those who do still have standing homes “are afraid to go back to attend their gardens” due to continuing aftershocks, Wuestenberg said of many village residents. Some of the creeks people had previously accessed to collect fresh water, meanwhile, are now blocked by landslides, which leaves villages reliant on rain water for drinking.
“We are seeing some cases of diarrhea, and I think there is a high risk of disease outbreak in the near future,” Wuestenberg said. “We should concentrate our efforts there.”
UNICEF is distributing vaccines and supplies to treat malnutrition, as well as recreation kits, school supplies, water containers, water purification tablets, tents, and replacement equipment for neonatal care. The response team is also working to address trauma, especially in young children who have lost parents or relatives, by building safe spaces in areas where communities have set up temporary shelters.
“It’s very scattered,” Wuestenberg said of the forested land now hosting thousands of displaced people. “It’s still difficult to get an account of how many [makeshift settlements] there are.”