February’s magnitude 7.5 quake caused widespread devastation and around 150 deaths in Hela, Southern Highlands and Western provinces.
Hela was the worst-affected but its long-running problem of tribal violence, which had surged in last year’s election period, has caused international humanitarian agencies to pull out of the province.
Provincial capital Tari is the focal point of some of the worst tribal fighting, exacerbated by mass displacement of Hela communities caused by the quake.
Police in Tari report that five people were killed in the area two weeks ago, scuppering an attempt at peace talks.
With over a dozen tribal killings reported in and around Tari since February, Hela police had recently received reinforcements from other provinces but were often out-numbered and outgunned by the fighting tribes.
Not even the presence of extra Defence Force personnel in hela has been able to bring the tribal fighting under control.
The head of PNG’s Emergency Disaster Restoration Team said the overall response to the disaster had been successful, in that disease outbreaks and starvation had been prevented so far.
But according to Bill Hamblin, there are parts of Hela that his team cannot reach due to civil unrest.
“Although the UN tried to go into Komo the other day, we’ve had the United Church people who went in there attacked – we’ve had the UN turned back by the security forces because of the helicopters being stoned,” he said.
“So that security situation has to be addressed before you can bring in relief. No organisation’s going to send in people who look like they’re going to get killed.”
Unicef in Papua New Guinea said humanitarian operations had been suspended in an area where over 40,000 earthquake affected people were in need.
The agency has called for more global attention, from the UN in New York and Geneva, on the plight of the quake-affected people of Hela.
Monjur Hossain, the UN’s acting Country Director for PNG, said Unicef had delivered aid supplies to Tari the capital of Hela after the quakes but now cannot access the province as the situation was completely unsafe.
He said the situation is extremely complex– with very little communication with the province due to ongoing unrest.
Health and welfare of the people were seriously threatened.
“The situation is really grave in terms of the deprivation in terms of the services and the lives of the people,” Hossain said.
“So we’ve been actually working at the regional and global level to raise this issue. We have recently had a global press conference organised in Geneva to raise the issue that we need to talk about Papua New Guinea.”
Despite the suspension of humanitarian services in the area, Unicef said it had been able to launch a measles and tetanus vaccination campaign in other districts of neighbouring Southern Highlands.
Unicef’s latest situational report on the quake response says it has reached 10,000 people with water purification tablets and is also providing psychosocial support.
It said 55,000 people remained displaced and 65 percent of health facilities in Hela and Southern Highlands Provinces were severely damaged.
The PNG government estimates over half a million people in total were affected by the quake, its aftershocks and landslides, and 270,000 people – nearly half of whom are children – are in need urgent assistance.
Unicef said its funding requirement for the response was US$13 million and it had a nearly 80 per cent shortfall.
Meanwhile, the Emergency Disaster Restoration Team is clamping down on misuse of helicopter charters for medevacs.
Dr Hamblin said unnecessary charter of helicopters, at around US$7000 per hour, had been fast draining emergency funding.
He said opportunists using the choppers to reach health services for medical needs unrelated to the earthquake needed to be kept in check.
“We’ve got to control the tasking of those helicopters, so that’s now coming in to my office,” he explained.
He said his team was taking over the management of helicopters in relief operations from the Department of Defence.
Meanwhile, the Tari MP James Marape, having this week seen a court petition against his 2017 election win dismissed in PNG’s capital Port Moresby, appealed for calm among people in his electorate.
Marape said he would now turn his efforts to forging peace in Hela, and focussing on helping with relief efforts in the province, which he claimed he had been prevented from doing over the past month due to the court matter. - RNZI