PORT MORESBY, 25 January 2012 (IRIN) - Rescue efforts are continuing in Papua New Guinea's (PNG) gas-rich Hela Province, a day after what officials have described as one of the Pacific nation's worst landslides ever.
"At this point, relief efforts are ongoing," Martin Mose, head of PNG's National Disaster Centre (NDC), [ http://www.pngndc.gov.pg/site/ ] told IRIN in Port Moresby on 25 January, describing the situation on the ground as "fluid".
Characterized by high terrain and precipitous slopes, the remote region in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea is home to a controversial multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) project [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=91810 ].
However, no direct link has been established between the landslide and the operational activities of the ExxonMobil project.
Dozens of people are feared dead, with local rescuers estimating many are still buried under the debris, after the landslide in Komo Maggarima District struck in the early hours of 24 January, catching many residents off guard.
The landslide affected an area of more than 2km and spread along the Highland highway, which runs between the town of Tari and Mt Hagen. The affected stretch of road was completely covered in earth and debris and access to the LNG site was cut off, local observers say.
Workers, vehicles and machinery were buried, with debris estimated to be up to 15m high in some places. Current estimates as to how many people have been affected remain unclear as a spontaneous settlement of people claiming to be landowners seeking compensation for the use of the quarry had recently formed below it.
Moreover, many of those in the settlement were from other parts of the highlands and not known by locals. "Heavy rain in recent weeks caused part of the mountain to collapse and come down. The slip is about 2km long and 500m wide. This is a national disaster," Libe Parindali, chairman of the Hides Gas Development Corporation (HGDC), an umbrella company of the landowners, said.
PNG is experiencing one of the worst wet seasons, which traditionally runs from December to May, ever, local authorities say.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill flew with Esso Highlands managing director Peter Graham and members of the National Disaster and Emergency Service to the Tari area on 25 January.
"It looks very bad. I have instructed Chief Secretary to Government, Manasupe Zurenuoc, to take charge of emergency relief operations," O'Neill said before he left.
Zurenuoc told IRIN that O'Neill was impressed with the relief and rescue operation that had already commenced and commended Esso Highlands, the developer of the LNG project.
Esso Highlands, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, has taken the lead in the rescue and relief operation. Other companies and organizations have offered to provide assistance to survivors and dig for bodies.
Meanwhile, relatives are already in mourning, as they await news of those still missing. "I called and called her mobile phone and it kept ringing until it went dead. I know she is dead," Wendy Waimasi said of her sister.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), it is difficult to access the Hides area by road, thus necessitating air access to the affected area.
The Australian government has reportedly offered logistics assistance to transport rescuers by helicopter to the site; however, as of the evening of 25 January, there had been no confirmation as to whether that offer has been accepted or not. A team led by the NDC, with representatives from AusAID and the Australian High Commission, is on the ground for a rapid assessment. Specific humanitarian needs will be known after it is released, on 26 or 27 January.