A Devastating Landslide Leaves Death and Instability in Its Wake. Direct Relief Responds.

A landslide in central Papua New Guinea buried whole villages and cut off access to people in need.

First published May 29, 2024 by Direct Relief.

ENGA PROVINCE, PAPUA NEW GUINEA – MAY 27: People walk at the destroyed area after a massive landslide struck a village in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea on May 27, 2024. The site’s remoteness, ongoing terrain movement and damage to access roads caused relief efforts to slow as government authorities remain focused on clearing debris and improving access to the site. While the exact number of victims is still not known, affected communities estimate that at least 670 people are missing following the landslide, this number is subject to change as rescue efforts are ongoing and expected to continue for days. (Photo by Emmanuel Eralia/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A deadly landslide swept through central Papua New Guinea in the early hours of Friday morning. Even as the area remains actively dangerous, a picture is slowly beginning to emerge of the devastating toll and scale of the disaster.
The official death toll of the May 24 disaster currently hovers at 670, although the nation’s government estimates that 2,000 people, many of them children, were buried under fast-moving rubble. Whole villages disappeared. Because the landslide occurred at approximately 3 a.m. local time, most people were likely in their homes. 
The landslide comes a month after northern Papua New Guinea was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, and flooding has been an ongoing issue in that region this year. These disasters have destroyed approximately 12,000 homes and affected more than 70,000 people. 

Direct Relief’s Response

In response to the deadly landslide, Direct Relief is working with the Enga Provincial Health Authority and an on-the-ground partner, Hope Worldwide, to assess and determine medical needs on the ground.  
Direct Relief is also mobilizing an initial two emergency response shipments to the East Sepik Provincial Health Authority in the north, in response to an earlier earthquake and repeated flooding attempts. The shipments contain emergency medical backpacks, a cholera kit, an emergency health kit, water filters, and a range of requested essential medications. 

Medical Care for Displaced Populatons

Gordon Willcock, an emergency response regional director at Direct Relief, explained that in disasters like this, the most widespread medical needs do not come from injuries directly connected to the event, but from chronic and acute diseases.  
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the physical instability of the area. More landslides are feared, and the disaster zone, part of the densely populated Enga Province, is difficult to reach because of a blocked main road. This instability and inaccessibility make it especially difficult to gather information on the dead — or on those affected by the conflict. Approximately 1,650 people are displaced, and many are reluctant to leave for safer ground because their loved ones are under the rubble, although there is little hope of finding more survivors at this point. 
“These events are really about evacuees and displaced people,” Willcock said. The biggest threats to health in similar disasters have come from interruptions to primary and chronic health care, from a lack of hygiene and access to clean water caused by displacement and contamination of water supplies, and from nutritional needs. Contagious diseases are also a concern whenever people shelter in close quarters. 

Compounding Health Risks

Although Papua New Guinea is a middle-income country, about 40% of the population lives below the extreme poverty line, as income inequality is widespread. The country is confronting a high burden of infectious diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Chronic disease and high maternal mortality rates are serious concerns. 
The Pacific nation is also prone to disasters, many of them connected to climate change. Storms, floods, earthquakes, and droughts have all left their mark on Papua New Guinea, and earthquakes and volcanic activity pose repeated threats. 
Adding to concerns in the region is the ongoing presence of tribal disputes over land and other resources. New outbreaks of violence killed 49 people in February. A series of riots in January killed 20 people and led to greater economic instability. 

Looking Forward

Direct Relief has an established record of supporting local health providers in Papua New Guinea, having provided prenatal vitamins, IV administration equipment, chronic disease and mental health medications, and more to Papua New Guinea in 2023. 
Direct Relief emergency response staff expect to have a clearer picture of the medical need in the coming days, and plan to allocate support accordingly.

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