Tribal Violence, Rain And Mosquitoes: Making Sense Of The PNG Landslide

Tribal violence, rain and mosquitoes: making sense of the PNG landslide

Port Moresby, (APP - UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News - 28th May, 2024) A landslide in Papua New Guinea is feared to have buried more than 2,000 people, with experts pointing to colossal tectonic forces, tribal clashes and mosquitoes to make sense of the crisis.

One of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, Papua New Guinea occupies a slice of the southwest Pacific that is frequently battered by earthquakes, flooding and volcanic eruptions.

But even by these volatile standards, the emergency unfolding in the highlands of Enga province could rank among the country's most lethal natural disasters.

Here's why:

- Ring of Fire -

The bustling highlands community on the shoulder of Mount Mungalo was destroyed when a landslide struck in the early hours of Friday morning.

Scores of homes and the people sleeping inside them were buried beneath an avalanche of boulders, mud and uprooted trees.

Papua New Guinea sits atop the seismic Ring of Fire, an arc of intense tectonic activity that stretches through Southeast Asia and across the Pacific basin.

"Papua New Guinea sits right on a plate boundary, where these large, rigid parts of the earth plough into each other," University of Adelaide geologist Alan Collins told AFP.

"This creates mountains, steep slopes and other extreme topography.

"You have these steep slopes located in an area of heavy rainfall, and this can rot the minerals in the rocks, and gradually weaken them."

Human influences, such as the clearing of native forests, made the slopes of these highland mountains even more precarious.

"You put all of those things together, and you can create a very unstable environment," Collins said.

Lying just south of the equator, Papua New Guinea has one of the wettest climates in the world.

Research has found shifting rainfall patterns linked to climate change could further exacerbate the risk of landslides.

- Tribal violence -

As disaster workers entered the remote disaster zone, they realised population estimates failed to account for dozens of families seeking sanctuary in the area.

Serhan Aktoprak, chief of the United Nations' migration agency in Papua New Guinea, said the "internally displaced" Tulpar people had moved into the village "as they escaped from another tribal conflict elsewhere".

Highland clans have fought each other in Papua New Guinea for centuries, but a recent influx of mercenaries and automatic weapons has inflamed tensions.

The Red Cross estimates as many as 30,000 people are displaced by tribal violence in Papua New Guinea every year.

- Highlands home -

Papua New Guinea has one of the least concentrated urban populations in the world.

Some 40 percent of people are thought to eschew its coastal cities in favour of highland regions in the country's interior.

The highlands are a mix of rolling jungle mountains, dense tropical rainforests and twisting river valleys.

Nestled amongst this unforgiving terrain are some of the fastest growing and most densely packed communities in the country.

There are myriad factors that could explain this, including high rates of polygyny, falling death rates and long-formed attachments to ancestral homelands.

Most highland communities occupy a kind of "goldilocks zone", sitting at altitudes between 1,400 metres (4,600 feet) and 2,600 metres high.

Researchers have found this helps them stave off the risk of malarial infections that run rampant through lower-lying areas.

- 'Buried alive' -

Reliable census figures are notoriously difficult to get in Papua New Guinea, hampered by the difficult terrain, severe weather, and remoteness of many communities.

While the country's official population is given as 10 million, some demographers suggest the number of citizens could be almost twice as high.

Enga provincial administrator Sandis Tsaka said officials had first gauged the size of the disaster-struck community using an outdated electoral roll that only counted those 18 and older.

These initial underestimates of the community's population helped to explain why death toll figures have jumped around so much.

Early estimates in the immediate aftermath of the landslide suggested a death toll between 100 and 500 people.

Days later these figures would be drastically revised by the country's National Disaster Centre -- which stated "more than 2,000 people" were feared to be "buried alive".

It could take weeks before anything near a definitive number emerges.

Papua New Guinea's northern coast was swamped by a 10 metre (30 foot) tsunami in 1998, killing more than 2,200 people in one of the country's worst natural disasters.