Landslide response should pave the way for recovery, resilience and peace in Papua New Guinea

A conversation with UNDP Resident Representative Nicholas Booth about addressing the complex impacts of the landslide in Enga Province and what it tells us about how to build peace and tackle the climate crisis in the PNG Highlands

May 31, 2024
Wide shot of collapsed hillside with people walking over rubble

A devastating landslide hit the remote village of Yambali in Enga Province on 24 May, burying homes and infrastructure and exposing the vulnerability of the Highlands to natural hazards.

Photo: UNDP Papua New Guinea

A devastating series of landslides in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea hit communities already living in profound poverty, displacement and conflict. Hundreds of people are estimated to be buried under rubble and debris. We spoke with UNDP Resident Representative Nicholas Booth about the situation on the ground and what UNDP is doing to help.

Can you begin by telling us what happened and the current impact of this disaster?

The landslide struck at around 3 a.m. last Friday in the Highlands region, tragically catching residents in their sleep. The scale of the disaster is immense, burying entire communities under massive boulders and mud. As of now, the rescue operations continue with diminishing hopes of finding survivors. The figures remain uncertain due to the ongoing ground movement and inaccessible terrain, but initial estimates suggest that hundreds of people are victims. However, accurate data remains elusive, further complicating our efforts.

Could you discuss the progress of rescue operations and the main challenges encountered?

The rescue operation is a complex and hazardous endeavour. The continuous movement of the ground complicates the situation significantly. Villagers and Defence Forces are working under perilous conditions, often using rudimentary tools. Heavy machinery is crucial but deploying it safely in such unstable terrain is challenging. Despite these obstacles, we have managed to deliver essential aid, including food and clean water, but the needs extend far beyond this. Medical care, shelter and psychosocial support are urgently required for the profoundly traumatized population.

Residents search for survivors in the aftermath of a landslide in Papua New Guinea

Rescue and relief efforts are hindered by the remote location and difficulty of road access. The continuing instability of the terrain makes it impossible to deploy the necessary machinery.

Photo: UNDP Papua New Guinea

The populations affected are clearly traumatized. How is this impacting the rescue operations and what needs to be done?

We found scenes of complete desolation, with entire communities deeply traumatized. The landslide covered areas up to six to eight metres deep. There are various categories of affected people: those dealing with the loss of loved ones, those who managed to escape and lost everything, and those who might still be at risk as the landslide progresses. Addressing the immediate needs for medical aid, shelter and food is crucial, but the psychological trauma requires comprehensive support as well. Additionally, a larger evacuation may be necessary, given ongoing geological assessments that indicate the area remains highly unsafe.

What has been destroyed, and what remains? What will be crucial for the rebuilding process?

The destruction is comprehensive, with entire communities and critical infrastructure devastated. The priority will be to restore vital infrastructure, especially roads, to facilitate aid and recovery efforts. However, rebuilding must go beyond physical infrastructure. We need to focus on community resilience, psychological recovery and strengthening local governance structures. Accurate data and robust emergency systems are fundamental to this effort, ensuring we can respond more effectively in the future.

Distraught survivors of a landslide in Papua New Guinea

In addition to food, medical care and shelter, survivors require psychosocial support to overcome the trauma.

Photo: UNDP Papua New Guinea

Can you explain the relationship between this disaster and climate change, particularly the impact on the most vulnerable populations?

We cannot draw direct links between climate change and this event.  We can however say that climate change significantly enhances the severity and frequency of such disasters. The Highlands are increasingly susceptible to extreme weather events, greatly affecting the most vulnerable populations. Those already grappling with poverty, conflict and fragile governance find themselves even more at risk. The landslide underscores the urgent need for climate adaptation strategies and robust local data systems to mitigate future risks and strengthen community preparedness.

Could you elaborate on the implications of tribal conflict in the region and how it affects rescue and rebuilding efforts?

Tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea presents a range of challenges to development.  Recent conflicts in the area of disaster have not yet directly affected the response, but they have complicated logistics as we need Papua New Guinea Defence Force escorts to ensure the safety of relief teams. This situation underscores the importance of integrating peacebuilding efforts into our response. Addressing underlying tribal tensions is not just essential for the rescue and relief operations but also for long-term community resilience and stability.

"Medical care, shelter and psychosocial support are urgently required for the profoundly traumatized population."
Nicholas Booth, UNDP Resident Representative in Papua New Guinea

What role is UNDP playing in coordinating the humanitarian response, and how important are partnerships in this context?

UNDP is at the forefront of coordinating the response, working closely with the UN system and various local and international partners. For example, we have helped lifesaving supplies provided by Australia to reach the affected communities. This collaboration is crucial for accurate situational assessments and addressing both immediate and long-term needs. We adopt a Humanitarian Peace Nexus approach, integrating emergency relief with conflict resolution and climate resilience initiatives. Effective partnerships amplify our efforts, allowing us to rebuild better and address underlying vulnerabilities that exacerbate such tragedies.

UNDP PNG Resident Representative Nicholas Booth speaks with residents during a visit to Enga

UNDP Resident Representative Nicholas Booth noted the "resilient, innovative and hardworking spirit of the Engan people" during a visit to the province in March 2024.

Photo: UNDP Papua New Guinea

In light of this disaster, what should the focus be beyond immediate relief efforts?

This landslide serves as a stark reminder of deeper systemic issues. Beyond immediate relief, we must focus on sustainable development, climate adaptation and peacebuilding. Building back better means enhancing community resilience, improving governance and fostering social trust. By addressing these root causes, we can ensure a more sustainable and secure future for the Highlands and Papua New Guinea as a whole.

Any final thoughts on the broader implications and the path forward for Papua New Guinea?

This disaster is more than a natural calamity—it's a wake-up call to address systemic vulnerabilities. The path forward involves integrated efforts, combining immediate relief with long-term development action aimed at resilience, governance, peace and climate adaptation.