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Disaster impacts and management in Papua New Guinea

31 July 2018   |   Commentary   |   By Lina Sanawe

Twenty years after her family and village were affected by the Aitape Tsunami, Lina Sanawe considers whether Papua New Guinea is ready for its next big natural disaster. The recent Highlands earthquake has shown that there are still gaps in capability and preparedness.

Tsunami damage in 1998 at Sissano, West Sepik province
Photo: University of Papua New Guinea
Tsunami damage in 1998 at Sissano, West Sepik province

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    This month marks 20 years since one of Papua New Guinea’s worst natural disasters.

    On 17 July 1998, an undersea earthquake off the northern coast of PNG triggered a deadly tsunami which came ashore along the West Sepik coast. The district was devastated, with an estimated 2,200 people killed and around 1,000 injured.

    For me the disaster had a direct, personal impact. My father was caught up in the wave. It destroyed my home village, Arop, which was located on the coastal strip of land along the Sissano lagoon.

    Photograph of tsunami damage at Arop village

    Aftermath of the 1998 tsunami at Arop village, West Sepik Province, PNG. Photo: Hugh Davies / University of Papua New Guinea

    At the time, I was in grade nine at Saint Ignatius Secondary School in Aitape. The school became the care centre for the tsunami victims.

    I remember the feeling of despair, sadness and tears not knowing whether my father was alive or dead. It was two days later, after rescue efforts and evacuation of the victims to the disaster centre, that my father was found to be alive.

    Ten of our family members were lost in the disaster.

    The Aitape tsunami came not long after the volcanic eruptions that destroyed Rabaul town. In the years since there have been other disasters – such as the 2004 Manam volcanic eruption – and the earthquake in the PNG Highlands this year.

    Papua New Guinea is the emerging economy in the Pacific, but along with vast opportunities, there are challenges the country experiences in all facets of the political, economic, social, and environmental sectors. 

    The country’s geological position makes it prone to natural disasters and it has always been a challenge when it comes to responding to major incidents.

    Learning from these disasters, PNG’s government has taken steps to address its disaster preparedness, and launched plans to address future disasters.

    But how ready is PNG for the next disaster that will inevitably come?

    2018 Highlands earthquake

    On 26 February 2018, PNG’s highlands region was hit by a major earthquake of magnitude 7.5.

    The centre of the earthquake was in Hela province, close to the operations of the PNG LNG project.

    More than half a million people were directly affected by the earthquake, and in the immediate aftermath more than half of them needed immediate life-saving assistance. Roads, housing, food gardens and water supplies were impacted by the earthquake and the subsequent aftershocks.  Oil and gas companies and mining companies were severely affected by the earthquake and were forced to shut down operations to assess the damaged facilities. They temporarily evacuated their workers.

    The mining and petroleum industries account for the majority of export earnings for PNG and are a key source of revenue through taxes paid to the PNG Government. When extractive companies shut down, there is a loss of production resulting in less export and revenue earnings, which impacts the corporate income tax and the personal income tax paid to government.

    But it is the impact on people that is the long-lasting effect of such a devastating disaster.

    Photograph of earthquake damaged house in Daga village.

    A boy stands in the ruins of a home in Daga village, Southern Highlands Province after the earthquake on 26 February 2018. Photo: Thomas Nybo for UNICEF

    The earthquake occurred in a rural area where the majority of people live very basic lives and depend on cultivating their land for food. In the face of a disaster with such a large impact, the instant reaction of people is to turn to superstitious beliefs of an ancestral curse or punishment for their wrong doing. Rumours become believable by the victims as they live in fear, trauma and grief for the loss of their land, homes and the deceased.

    The sudden change in their welfare can mean living in a care centre which is unfamiliar territorial land. Children’s education is affected, women’s safety is at risk and there is the potential for the spread of diseases.

    The extent of the damage can mean many years before people’s livelihoods can be restored and recovery can take place.

    This comprehensive insight about the real problems and debated issues demonstrates the impact disasters have on the majority of the rural population.

    Disaster Relief Response

    It is over two decades since the Rabaul volcanic eruption and Aitape tsunami disaster led to the development of PNG’s disaster and recovery framework.

    However, the implementation of this 2012 strategy is inconsistently applied.

    This has been demonstrated with the 2018 earthquake.

    The PNG Government established another Emergency Disaster Restoration team following a declaration of the earthquake state of emergency. This was done without consolidation and utilisation of the existing policy framework.

    PNG is a developing nation. It is difficult to implement its disaster management policies because of limited financial capacity, ineffective infrastructure and under-resourced defence logistics.

    It often lacks the technical expertise and human resources to effectively implement its disaster strategy at the provincial level and community level.

    Because of these limited resources and the ineffective management capacity, the PNG government has relied on external support to provide immediate necessities.

    Agencies like MAF PNG, the Red Cross and private sector organisations are usually the first to provide immediate response and recovery when disasters strike.

    The government must factor this into the existing disaster management plans and ensure it maintains connections with these key agencies to be able to call on them to help with disaster efforts.

    Outside agencies and international partners have shown they are ready to help when called upon. This allows the government to concentrate on supporting the people to recover. The recovery process starts with the necessities of food, water, clothing and shelter. While the victims’ physical needs are catered for, the psychological trauma, fear and loss will take years to overcome.

    Photograph of aid being delivered in the PNG highlands

     Aid being unloaded at Pimaga, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea.
    Photo: Thomas Nybo for UNICEF

    About 80 per cent of the rural population are engaged in informal labour. Therefore, a primary objective of the recovery process should involve reconstruction of homes and reestablishment of agriculture cultivation in their new environments.

    When the relief efforts cease, the people will be able to sustain their own lives if they are supported through recovery.

    Future Disaster Management

    Each disaster and response provides experience which can be used to create a more effective disaster management system for the future.

    The key factors that must be built upon are the consolidation of existing policies, fostering an ongoing relationship with external agencies and international partners, ensuring the delivery of timely and relevant information, and developing outcomes reports that review the resources allocated and used in managing the disasters.

    Existing policies and frameworks should be consolidated to streamline processes so that resources can be better allocated and concentrated to manage future disasters.

    The government must factor external support into future disaster plans. Its relief strategies should integrate existing knowledge and skills of the humanitarian agencies and private companies. The government must ensure ongoing relationships are maintained with these key stakeholders.

    Proper information records, expenditure accountability and comprehensive outcomes reports must be tabled to show how disasters are managed in terms of funding and logistics to guide future disaster management.

    Proper records and factsheets of financial aid utilisation, relief assistance reports and recovery outcomes reports must be published to ensure transparency and effective governance and management of future disasters.

    By learning from its experience, PNG can develop policies that support its people and draw on the expertise of external partners to be ready to help when the next disaster comes.