Papua New Guinea landslide buries thousands, officials say. What to know

Click to play video: 'Papua New Guinea landslide buries more than 2,000 people, officials say'
Papua New Guinea landslide buries more than 2,000 people, officials say
WATCH: Papua New Guinea landslide buries more than 2,000 people, officials say – May 27, 2024

A massive landslide that local officials say buried thousands of people in a remote area of Papua New Guinea last week has prompted an international response, with partners set to meet Tuesday to determine how best to help.

The Papua New Guinea government told the United Nations in a letter dated Sunday that more than 2,000 people were buried alive by the landslide, which caused “major destruction” in Yambali village in Enga province.

The U.N. has estimated at least 670 people are dead but said that number will change as rescue efforts continue over the next several days. Those efforts are being hampered by “the site’s remoteness, ongoing terrain movement and damage to access roads,” the agency said Monday, as well as tribal warfare predating the disaster.

The Enga provincial authority has reported only five bodies have been recovered so far as of Monday.

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“We know that the number of casualties is going to be very high,” Nicholas Booth, the U.N. Development Programme representative for Papua New Guinea, told Global News in an interview from the national capital of Port Moresby on Tuesday.

“This was a catastrophic, very serious event.”

Global Affairs Canada said Monday it has received “one general enquiry related to this event and we are closely monitoring the situation,” but did not provide more information. The department said there are 144 registered Canadian citizens in Papua New Guinea.

“Our thoughts are with all of those affected,” a spokesperson told Global News in a statement.

On Monday, International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said “Canada is in close contact with our partners on the ground and stands ready to offer support” to Papua New Guinea over the “devastating” landslide.

Booth said the disaster management team co-chaired by the Papua New Guinea government and the U.N. would convene Tuesday along with international partners to coordinate a response, after the local government calls for international support.

What happened?

The landslide occurred early Friday morning, when the side of a mountain swept through Yambali village while residents were sleeping. The village is located in a mountainous and forested region known as the Highlands, and is difficult to reach under normal circumstances.

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At least 4,000 people were believed to be living in the village as of two years ago, but population data is difficult to confirm. Papua New Guinea has not held a census since 2000.

The U.N. says 150 homes in the village were buried under soil six to eight metres deep. A 200-metre stretch of the main highway in Enga province was also buried.

“Some of the boulders (that fell in the landslide are) people-sized boulders,” Booth said.

This May 27, 2024, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the recent landslide in the Enga region of northern Papua New Guinea that killed hundreds of people and buried part of the Yambali village. (Maxar Technologies via AP).
This May 27, 2024, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the recent landslide in the Enga region of northern Papua New Guinea that killed and wounded hundreds of people and buried part of the Yambali village. (Maxar Technologies via AP).

The highway connects Yambali to the nearby town of Porgera and the Porgera gold mine 30 kilometres away. The mine is operated by Canadian company Barrick Gold in a joint venture with China’s Zijin Mining.

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A Barrick spokesperson told Global News the landslide did not affect its operations, and that the mine has enough fuel and critical supplies on site to operate for at least 40 days.

Authorities say the ground is still unstable and boulders are continuing to fall in the area, further hampering rescue efforts. The debris is also getting increasingly waterlogged from three streams covered by the landslide, making it dangerous to work on and increasing the possibility it could slide farther downhill.

Justine McMahon, country director of the humanitarian agency CARE International, told the Associated Press that moving survivors to more stable ground was an immediate priority along with providing them with food, water and shelter. The military was leading those efforts.

Rescue efforts underway

The blocked highway and unstable land has made it difficult to deliver aid and locate the missing.

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Emergency responders have brought aid in from the provincial capital of Wabag, about 60 kilometres from the disaster site, but have had to make the final 200 metres of the journey by foot over the rubble-covered highway.

Earth-moving equipment used by Papua New Guinea’s military was being transported to the buried village. Barrick said it was also mobilizing heavy equipment to the site and is providing a community relations team to work with rescuers and the government. The company has delivered an aid package of food and first aid supplies, its spokesperson said.

In this image supplied by the International Organization for Migration, villagers search amongst the debris from a landslide in the village of Yambali in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Monday, May 27, 2024. (Mohamud Omer/International Organization for Migration via AP).

Images provided by the U.N. International Organization for Migration showed debris being cleared exclusively by hand with shovels, picks and sticks before equipment began to arrive more than two days after the landslide.

Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the U.N. migration agency’s mission in Papua New Guinea, told AP that survivors have been hesitant to allow heavy machinery to be used because they do not want the bodies of their relatives harmed.

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Humanitarian group CARE Australia said Sunday it has delivered an initial supply of food, water and basic hygiene to survivors. UNICEF was also on the ground as of Sunday providing water and hygiene kits.

The U.N. said its partners on the ground had identified food as an urgent need, along with shelters, medical supplies and other non-food items.

Australia, a close neighbour and Papua New Guinea’s largest provider of foreign aid, announced an initial A$2.5 million ($2.27 million) aid package on Monday and said it would send technical experts to help rescue and recovery.

Canada and the United States have offered assistance for the relief efforts. China was also standing by to provide help, a foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters Monday.

Tribal warfare

The relief efforts have been further impacted by ongoing tribal warfare in the region that has grown increasingly violent.

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At least 26 men were killed in an ambush in February, and eight more died in a clash between two rival clans on Saturday in a longstanding dispute that’s unrelated to the landslide. About 30 homes and five retail businesses were burned down in the fighting, local officials said.

Booth said international relief groups have needed military escorts due to ensure aid is safely delivered. He said no aid convoys have been stopped because of the conflict, “but that’s clearly something that will need to be watched very carefully going forward.”

Convoys have only been able to travel by daylight due to the security risks, and with a two-hour drive each way, their time on site has been seriously restricted, Aktoprak told the AP.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds feared dead after massive landslide in Papua New Guinea'
Hundreds feared dead after massive landslide in Papua New Guinea

Booth added the conflicts have also displaced many people in the area, meaning the number of residents in Yambali was likely higher than the officially-estimated 4,000 when the landslide hit.

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Before the landslide, Canada had updated its travel advisory for the country, urging people to avoid non-essential travel due to “high levels of crime, inter-ethnic violence and civil unrest.”

Canada does not have a consulate in Papua New Guinea, telling travellers to contact the Australian High Commission which works with Canada to provide consular services.

Global Affairs Canada says Canadians in Papua New Guinea who require emergency assistance to contact its 24-hour emergency watch and response centre.

— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters

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