Fears increased as landslides remained ‘very active’

Papua New Guinea authorities say about 7,900 people living near the site of a deadly landslide are “at risk” as rocks and debris continue to tumble down a mountainside.

An alert has been issued for possible evacuations, and a provincial official said the mountain was still “very active.”

Rescue workers say it is becoming less likely that victims will be found alive in the rubble.

The country’s disaster agency says about 2,000 people were buried when a mountain collapse occurred last Friday.

This is far more than the UN estimate of 670 victims.

The United Nations says it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of dead because it is difficult to reach the site of incident and reach people buried under the rubble.

Multiple UN officials said one reason for this was the complexities involved in the search and recovery mission, which has now largely been reduced to a body-removal operation.

“This is not a rescue operation, it’s a recovery mission,” Niels Krøyer of UNICEF Papua New Guinea told news agency AFP. “It is very unlikely they would have survived.”

According to local officials, only six bodies had been recovered till Tuesday.

Villagers are trying to remove large stones and debris with shovels, sticks and bare hands amid delays in the arrival of heavy machinery, and there are cultural sensitivities about the use of excavator machines near bodies.

The area also remains dangerous due to continuous falling of rocks. Videos taken during the day show rocks falling from the mountain.

“It’s still very active. The mountain is breaking apart,” Enga provincial administrator Sandise Tsaka told the BBC.

“Rocks and debris continue to come in, making our search, rescue and recovery operations challenging,” he said.

The debris is up to 10 metres deep in some places and the pile of rubble is still sliding down the hill, prompting authorities to alert nearby communities to the danger and issue notices to evacuate people to safer places.

“Due to the landslide, the impact area of ​​the landslide is gradually increasing. Therefore, the size of houses and properties that were not affected by the original landslide area is increasing every day,” Mr Tsaka said.

He said another village near Yambli village, which was affected earlier, is also now in danger.

There are also growing concerns about the risk of infection and disease in the area, as bodies trapped under the debris begin to decompose.

The United Nations had warned that a stream was flowing from the hill beneath the debris.

“The water trapped between the ground and the rubble is flowing – and the bodies are starting to rot. Can you imagine that happening? [the impact] “There are more than 2,000 bodies buried under this land that have not been recovered,” UN migration agency official Serhan Aktoprak told the BBC on Tuesday.

Amid the dangerous conditions, aid groups say they are focused on the immediate task of delivering basic supplies such as food, water and hygiene kits to residents.

But there are many obstacles – including the highway leading to the village being blocked and damaged by landslides.

On Tuesday it was reported that a bridge south of the landslide zone, connecting the centres of Hagen and Wabeg provinces, had also collapsed, making the work of relief groups more difficult.

Australia has promised to deliver supplies by air, which are expected to arrive on Wednesday.

Local officials say about 3,800 people were living in the hill village before the landslide. The landslide occurred around 3:00 a.m. on Friday and destroyed more than 150 homes.

The collapse of the mountain is believed to be caused by several weeks of heavy rain and other wet conditions in the area.

Prime Minister James Marape sent his condolences earlier in the week and directed the dispatch of national response teams to the region.

The disaster comes at a time when Mr Marape is facing political pressure – with parliament expected to vote a no-confidence motion against him on Tuesday.