Landslides take toll on key PNG highway

PORT MORESBY, 4 July 2013 (IRIN) - A vital highway, long regarded as the single most important road in Papua New Guinea (PNG), is slowly being destroyed by landslides.

"It's not a highway any more," Peter Kama, a businessman and community leader in Chimbu Province, a mountainous region in PNG's central highlands, told IRIN. "The landslides are destroying the road and threatening the livelihoods of the people around it."

Landslides affecting the 700km Okuk Highway have been common in the past decade. Engineers say the road is outdated and poorly maintained, and that its drainage system has deteriorated.

Torrential rains during the annual rainy season from November to April, deforestation from farming, along with increased volumes of traffic due to resource development have compounded the problem," Godfree Umba, managing director of Kaia Works, a civil engineering company working on the highway, told IRIN.

Chimbu Province, through which the road runs, has seen seven major landslides in the past decade, experts say.

On the night of 9 May, at least 200 families lost their homes and livelihoods when a major landslide left a 300-metre wide gap in the highway at Waigar in the Kerowagi District of Chimbu. Andrew Pera his wife and two children lost the only coffee trees they had and were left with no fertile land to plant new ones, he said.

In 2012, a landslide in Hela Province, in which dozens lost their lives, affected more than 2km of the highway, which connects the mountainous highlands to the coastal city of Lae.

The PNG National Department of Works, which is responsible for road maintenance, says landslides are not only destroying the highway, but also food gardens and homes, in a country where 85 percent of the population rely on subsistence farming.

The government says it is well aware of the problem and is in the process of taking action.

"We are not waiting for the entire infrastructure to collapse and slow down the economy before we take action in addressing this enormous challenge," PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill told the Australia-Papua New Guinea Business Council at its recent forum in Port Moresby.

In February, experts predicted that up to 35,000 people were affected by landslides and flooding during the last rainy season.