Papua New Guinea earthquake: there is a disaster on our doorstep that’s being ignored
By Anna Bryan
A team works to unload emergency supplies from a helicopter in Papua New Guinea. (Supplied: Thomas Nybo/ Unicef)
The piercing wailing builds as the young boy’s body, lifeless, is cradled by an older man to safe ground.
Relatives are there waiting, crying and shrieking, overcome by grief as they confirm their worst fears. The boy is the latest victim of a devastating magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea almost a month ago.
The disaster killed 145 people and that number is expected to rise as more bodies are recovered. Authorities say 270,000 people need emergency aid.
This unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding right now on Australia’s doorstep.
But you’d be forgiven for not knowing much about it.
Few smartphones, no internet
This is a disaster the likes of which we haven’t seen for decades. And I’m not just referring to the scale of the destruction.
There are few places in the world as remote, and inaccessible, as the highlands of Papua New Guinea where the earthquake occurred.
Smartphones are rare and there is certainly no internet connection.
For weeks after the earthquake, the only visible evidence of the earthquake occurring was from aerial surveillance videos and satellite imagery.
Aid workers couldn’t get to the epicentre and neither could journalists.
Families shelter in a makeshift tent in Pimaga, PNG, after their homes were damaged or destroyed by recent earthquakes. (Supplied: Thomas Nybo)
Compare this to the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake, or the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that struck our other neighbour New Zealand.
Within minutes of the Christchurch quake, video footage from mobile phones was uploaded to YouTube, and the Nepal quake was even live-streamed as it happened.
Not surprisingly both events galvanised the Australian public and Australians gave generously.
Sadly in the case of Papua New Guinea, the lack of media coverage has corresponded with a lack of comparable donations. It’s a silent emergency where the suffering is largely out of sight.
The affected region is incredibly remote, can only be reached by plane or a full day’s drive from the nearest population centre and landslides have damaged many roads. (Supplied: John Hewat/CARE Australia)
The Australian Government, for its part, has generously contributed $5 million to the response and has provided military aircraft, personnel and supplies to support the PNG Government’s relief efforts.
It has now been several weeks since the initial earthquake and most of the communities hardest hit remain cut off from the outside world. Entire villages have been wiped out by landslides and broken dams.
Food supplies are dwindling, medical supplies are exhausted in many places. And there are now fears of a major health crisis, with food and water sources badly contaminated.
Could you imagine if you lost your house to bushfire in Australia and had to wait a month for help to arrive? No way out. No shops where you can buy supplies. That’s the situation people in PNG are dealing with.
Logistical challenges huge
The PNG Government, aid workers and some private sector companies are doing everything they can to get help to where it’s needed.
But this is an extraordinarily remote part of the world and the logistical challenges are huge.
Even before the earthquake, the epicentre was a full day’s drive from the nearest town and two day’s drive from the nearest port.
There was widespread damage to infrastructure from the February 26 earthquake. (Supplied: Catholic Bishop Donald Lippert)
With roads cut off by landslides, many of the communities hardest hit can only be reached by chopper. There are only so many choppers in PNG and only so many boxes of food you can fit in each one. So getting enough supplies where they’re needed presents enormous challenges for the relief effort.
In response, aid agencies like CARE have had to get innovative. Instead of distributing bottled water, we’re using collapsible jerry cans and compact water purification kits. These take up less space, are easier to transport and don’t create the same level of waste. There are also moves to distribute fast growing seed crops so subsistence farmers can quickly regrow their food gardens.
Women and girls at most risk
In emergencies like these, it’s easy to focus on the tangible things people need: food, water and shelter. But keeping people safe is equally important, particularly women and girls.
PNG is already one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with the majority of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime.
In the aftermath of an emergency, we know from experience that the risk of sexual violence becomes even greater.
That is why CARE is making sure its emergency response caters specifically to the needs of women and girls, as well as men and boys. Already, CARE has distributed personal hygiene kits to new mothers at health centres in the disaster zone. We’ll also be working with local schools and health centres to create dedicated safe spaces for women and children.
It’s going to be months, if not years, before people in Papua New Guinea get their lives back on track.
Anna Bryan is CARE’s program director in Papua New Guinea. To help donate to CARE Australia’s PNG Earthquake Appeal at care.org.au/pngearthquake or call 1800 020 046.