Papua New Guinea - Volcanic Eruption OCHA Situation Report No. 4

Situation Report
Originally published
Ref: OCHA/GVA - 2002/0233
OCHA Situation Report No. 4
Papua New Guinea (PNG) - Volcanic eruption
commenced: 5 August 2002

This situation report is based on information provided by OCHA's Regional Disaster Response Adviser for the Pacific, based in Suva, Fiji. Sources include the United Nations Country Team, PNG National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), University of PNG, Kimbe Vulcanological Observatory, Emergency Management Australia, and AusAID, notably their field officer in West New Britain.

The Ongoing Eruption

1. Although steam and fumes are still being emitted from Mt. Pago's upper and lower vents, since early November the volcano has settled down and no ash emissions have been observed recently. Lava continues to flow slowly from the northwestern-most vent of the fissure system, creating a significant lava field within Witori Caldera. Some volcanic earthquakes are still being recorded, but overall seismicity is at a low 'normal background' level for Witori Caldera. There has been no noticeable ground deformation in the last month, in contrast to the period between the start of the eruption and early November, when complex and significant movements were recorded.

2. The Mt. Pago Volcano Monitoring Team at the new Kimbe Vulcanological Observatory (KVO) expects the vapour emission, lava flow, and slow deformation to continue, and they state that there is no threat from the current level and nature of eruption. Its previously dynamic nature and experience from other similar volcanoes indicate that the character of the eruption may change, although there are no indications from current data trends for a major increase in activity. Small fluctuations in the eruptive behaviour may take place with little warning, but a change to more hazardous eruptions is expected to be heralded by various observable phenomena.

The Emergency Situation

3. Acting on scientific advice following the lull in volcanic and seismic activity, in November the West New Britain Provincial Administration began to encourage most of the 13,000 displaced people to return to their villages on the Hoskins Peninsula, if these were areas assessed as being of lower risk. The return was predicated on the ability of the authorities to evacuate the returnees within 6 hours, using trucks from New Britain Palm Oil Limited, if this should become necessary. Most people accommodated in the 'care centres' accepted this decision and were keen to return home.

4. The ongoing eruptions in New Britain, which include Tavurvur Volcano at Rabaul in the east and Mt. Ulawun as well as Mt. Pago in the west, also pose a hazard to aviation, necessitating the diversion and cancellation of many flights.

National Response

5. Aerial observation of the volcano has been suspended for the present, owing to financial constraints. However, remote-sensing instruments are still in place, enabling continuous monitoring of the threat by staff of the KVO. Technicians from Rabaul Vulcanological Observatory (RVO) and AusAID are currently installing equipment that will telemeter data from a seismometer and an electronic tilt back to Rabaul in 'real-time', to enable vulcanologists to monitor from the main observatory in Rabaul. They have also produced a volcanic hazard map based on three scenarios; for a large, intermediate, or small-scale eruption in the future. The map is designed to assist the Provincial Disaster Committee (PDC) in managing the current emergency and in establishing longer-term contingency measures.

6. Whilst the volcano monitoring team, the civil authorities and their risk management advisers are all highly active in day-to-day management of the current situation and in contingency planning, they must ensure that they remain closely coordinated and informed about all issues of mutual concern, on a continuous basis. For instance, decision-makers need daily reports on the level of threat posed by the volcano, as well as longer-term projections. Poor passage of information is partly a product of the disaster management system in the province below the PDC, which lacks clear organizational structure and where there is insufficient delegation of authority to managers in the field.

7. Overall however, the West New Britain Provincial Administration has done a very creditable job in this emergency; evacuating, resettling, provisioning up to 12,000 people, with funds and little external support, especially initially. It is now interested in having the Red Cross visit each 'care centre' to ascertain how well they worked in terms of health, nutrition, sanitation, and other issues. If this evaluation goes ahead, the recommendations will inform future emergency preparedness efforts and help to construct a more effective provincial disaster management system, based on the lessons learnt.

8. At national level, the Government has provided the second half of a PGK 2 million (USD 572,000) grant to the Province. The appointment of a new director at the NDMO has reinvigorated the Mt. Pago Task Force and should result in more responsive support to the West New Britain PDC, and better passage of information to non-governmental and international actors. It is also hoped that the some of the managerial wrinkles that were apparent during recent disasters in PNG will now be ironed out.

International Response

9. Please refer to the table of international assistance included in OCHA Situation Report No. 3 on this emergency, dated 27 September 2002.

10. UNICEF has completed its planned distribution of food and non-food relief items, direct to the 'care centres'. UNDP has also successfully conducted its project to provide a transport service for evacuees between the 'care centres' and their villages so that they can access their land for garden produce and bush shelter materials, implemented through the Catholic Diocese of West New Britain.

Current and Future Needs

11. Although some food assistance has been made, the main need over the next three to four months will be for food. The few who are still displaced will continue to need rations, and the majority who have returned to their homes will probably need support until their new gardens have become productive. During their 4 month absence in the 'care centres' the evacuees harvested from their existing gardens without replanting, partly because they believed that new crops could be poisoned but also because it was difficult for them to get to their land. The Provincial Administration has been advised to verify returnees' medium-term food needs by surveying their garden areas.

12. It remains possible that the population on the Hoskins Peninsula around Mt. Pago may need to be evacuated again, in the near or more distant future. In fact, a major eruption may also impact upon additional communities on Commodore Bay, to the east and northeast of the peninsula, as in the 1911-17 eruption. There is thus a need for ongoing contingency planning by the provincial and national governments, including the identification and preparation of better 'care centre' locations. Appropriate agencies including international donors should consider assisting the authorities in this effort.

13. OCHA remains in close contact with the office of the UN Resident Coordinator and the Director of the NDMO in Port Moresby, through its Regional Disaster Response Adviser.

This situation report, together with further information on this and other ongoing emergencies, is also available on the OCHA Internet Website at

Telephone: +41-22-917 12 34
Fax: +41-22-917 00 23

In case of emergency only: Tel. +41-22-917 20 10

Desk Officers:
Mr. R. Mueller / Mr. S. Nakajima
Direct Tel. +41-22-917 3131/ 4034

Press contact:
(Gva) - Ms. Elizabeth Byrs, direct Tel. +41-22-917 2653
(N.Y.) - Mr. Brian Grogan, direct Tel. +1-212-963 1143

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