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Logistics and Security Hamper Papua New Guinea Earthquake Relief Response

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Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 9 March 2018 - New Zealand Defence Force personnel uploading emergency relief supplies from New Zealand on board the RNZAF C-130 Hercules aircraft. Photo credit: NZDF

By Suausi Vienna Richards

Nearly two months after Papua New Guinea’s destructive 7.5 Earthquake, access to the worst affected areas of the remote and rugged Highlands, amidst ongoing security concerns, continue to challenge ongoing emergency relief efforts. 

Since the 26 February earthquake, more than 190 aftershocks have hit Papua New Guinea’s Highland provinces of Enga, Gulf, Hela, Southern Highlands and Western Highlands. 

Papua New Guinea Government estimate that 270,000 people are in need of assistance across the four provinces. That includes more than 125,000 children. 

“Infrastructure was already pretty poor but there are certain communities that were not reachable even through infrastructure,” says Mr Gianluca Rampolla, the United Nation’s Resident Co-ordinator in Papua New Guinea, a key humanitarian partner, and co-chair of the PNG Government’s Disaster Management Committee.

Mr Rampolla, the UN's top official co-ordinating the UN's multi-agency response to the Papua New Guinea crisis, says the most affected and most difficult to reach areas are Tari, the capital of the Hela Province, and Mendi, the capital of the Southern Highlands.

“The communities that managed to benefit from immediate relief were the ones that were closest to the pipelines, that were better known and better assessed in terms of understanding where they were...because of accessibility,” he says.

Together with multiple humanitarian partners including New Zealand and Australia, the UN says they will keep operating for the next four to five months to reach those who are most affected, continuing to provide immediate relief items. 

With landslides and inaccessible roads and areas with no roading infrastructure, helicopter and small planes are the only way into some of the remotest areas affected by the earthquakes to deliver shelter, water, sanitation, health, food and protection.

Second Phase of Emergency Relief

Now in the second phase of the emergency relief “what we’re now trying to to reach the more difficult to access areas especially in Tari...and difficult to reach district close to Mendi,” he says.

Last week, Mr Rampolla visited affected people in Mendi, capital of the Southern Highlands:  “I went to visit a care centre where...about 1000 people came from three villages. They walked three hours (to get to care centre)...It shows you how complex the lay of the land is, how difficult it is to reach.”

More than 55,000 people are displaced as a result of the earthquake and living in one of nine care centres, according to National Disaster Centre

"If I gave you a sense of how these care centres are: they’re not care centres. They’re just huts with people living in it. It’s very poor water and sanitation facility, " he says. "You can imagine the risk associated to it with hundreds of people living together in the same place." Protection is a very important issue in these areas with one of the highest rates of gender-based violence.  

The psychological trauma experienced by the local people who have survived the earthquakes is another major issue. “One of the biggest challenges is that the people that have congregated into care centres are not willing to go back because they’re scared,” he says. “They can’t really understand the nature of the earthquakes. They’re afraid to go back to their villages.”

In Southern Highlands capital of Mendi, Papua New Guinea, young earthquake survivors gather at a UNICEF-supported child friendly space to play and talk with counselors where young children under age five use puppets to work through their emotions. Photo credit: UNICEF/UN0188834/Nybo

Intertribal Warfare in Tari, Hela Province

Access issues are further compounded by tribal conflicts creating ongoing security issues for humanitarian and government workers. 

Last month, intertribal warfare broke out in Tari, the capital of the Hela province, forcing the UN and other aid teams to pull out and suspend humanitarian operations in that area.

“We relocated staff because we couldn’t provide security any longer, nor could government. So we moved them from Tari to Mendi, but we kept operating in and around villages in the area of Tari, that we could reach without going through Tari,” he says.

“Again, we were not target of the tribal conflict,” says Mr Rampolla. “But the risk is being involved in tribal skirmishes and we assess that the risk was too high...But again, as I said, the plan is to go back by Wednesday(this week) if the conditions are right for us to go back. 

This week, a security team visited Tari to assess the security situation and found that it remains unsafe to return to Hela’s capital for now. Meanwhile, the UN says they continue to deliver food assistance and relief goods in other areas of the Hela province.

In the Southern Highlands’ in Mendi, says Mr Rampolla, the situation is as volatile but there are no ongoing conflicts. “At times, there are just mob actions…” he says. “We had a slight incident a couple of weeks ago where a UNICEF convoy was attacked by mob and one staff was slightly injured. But that didn’t have an impact on our operations and the authorities did apologise profusely and are investigating the cases following up with authorities there.”

Air Transport Needed to Reach Hard to Access Areas

U-N representative Gianluca Rampolla says the support from New Zealand and Australia's defence forces has been critical for the relief effort. “Thank you to New Zealand and all the people in New Zealand for the help that was provided,” he says.

“The support that we got from New Zealand and Australia has been critical in terms of ability to ship relief items from Port Moresby to Mt Hagen and Moro, " he says.

"Without the New Zealand Defence Force and Australian Defence Force C-130 aircrafts, “we would not have been able to."

New Zealand continues to work closely with the Papua New Guinea authorities and other humanitarian partners to support the response effort following the earthquake.

To date, the New Zealand Government has committed $3.5 million to support the immediate response and contribute to early recovery for the affected communities.   Immediately following the earthquake New Zealand provided $500,000 to support urgent needs on the ground, and deployed New Zealand Defence Force C-130 aircraft.

RNAZAF Air Force Base Auckland, When, 9 March 2018 - New Zealand Defence Force personnel loading emergency relief supplies onto the RNZAF C-130 Hercules aircraft New Zealand's Whenuapai Air Force Base destined for Port Moresby Papua New Guinea onto the RNAZF C-130 Hercules. Photo credit: NZDF

Care International is one of the NGOs humanitarian agencies on the ground trying to get relief supplies to remote areas.

“ The airstrips in these communities are small and some have been badly damaged by the earthquake, and so it is only possible to take small aircraft into these areas to deliver relief items,” says Anna Bryan, Program Director for Care International in Papua New Guinea.

“People in these communities have had their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed, and their needs in relation to health, sanitation, hygiene and shelter are great,” she says. "It is...very expensive and time consuming to deliver sufficient relief items to all the affected people in these remote communities.”

Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) is a New Zealand NGO providing air transport with small aircraft in the relief effort in a limited capacity.  “We are partnering with NZ Aid and they are providing funding so that we can offer 50 percent subsidized flights to those delivering relief aid,” says  Sharlene Coker, MAF’s Global Disaster Response Administration and Operations Specialist. 

The Biggest Humanitarian Priority for Displaced Families in Care Centres

United Nation’s Gianluca Rampolla says one of the  biggest priority is helping 26,000 people in care centres to return to their villages to rebuild it better than it was before. 

“They need to go back to start replanting so as to be able to have their gardens and be able to return as soon as possible to their normal livelihoods,” he says.

The consequences of staying in the care centres, he says, will likely be contagious disease outbreaks, violence and they cannot guarantee protection to them.

Tags: Papua New Guinea, Earthquake, Emergency,