PNG Disasters

I visited PNG to discuss “emergency broadcasting.” As part of my preparation I built up a little knowledge about the disaster situation in that country.

PNG has about 7 million residents and a fantastic rate of population growth, but in places there is great poverty.

Emergencies are dealt with largely by provincial governments and responders, some of which are quite sophisticated, others are still developing.Communications are reasonable, although for the vast majority of people the web is too costly to access, so texting is widely used in the cities. Many villages have no access to reliable power, although the bigger centres are probabloy okay for most of the time.

The media is vibrant; the health sector has just been flooded with new cases after the Government made hospital visits free. I read a story saying next year the country will be introducing pensions for aged people with disabilities The extra money is coming from the mining development sector.


The principal disasters confronting the community of PNG are floods and cyclones, which each year result in a large number of people being displaced, a small number of injuries and occasional deaths, and devastation to agriculture and subsistence farming.

In addition PNG has five active and two dormant volcanoes.


PNG lies on the “Pacific Rim of Fire” and experiences earthquakes weekly in the mountain regions (circ 3.5-4.5 Richter scale), a few of which each year result in landslips which impact on local communication tracks roads and utilities. Occasionally higher magnitude earthquakes are recorded.

The seismic image map of PNG by the US Geological Survey (Below) shows probable recurrence of seismic activity.

There have been 18 earthquakes greater than magnitude 6.6 (When damage and deaths are thought likely to begin to occur) since 1995[1] but only two resulted in fatalities (total, 6 people).


There is great fear in PNG that tsunami will impact on coastal communities. They are known within oral history but are extremely rare. Most catastrophic tsunami throughout the world are generated by earthquakes greater than magnitude 7, off shore, however the two tsunami which created great damage in PNG were not. The Aitape tsunami (1998) was created when an onshore earthquake created a land slump under the ocean, with much damage caused because of the unique canyon nature of the off shore area funnelling water across the coast.

The other tsunami was (1888) was generate buy a collapsing volcano.

The common fear grows from the tsunami which impacted on the coastal communities of Aitape region in July 1998 10-25 minutes after a magnitude 7 earthquake. At least 2,183 people were killed, thousands injured, about 9,500 homeless and about 500 missing as a result of a tsunami generated in the Sissano area.

Maximum wave heights were estimated at 15 meters. Several villages were completely destroyed and others extensively damaged.

The tsunami comprised three waves, each estimated to be about 4m high. The second of the three waves rose to a height of 10-15 m above sea level after it had crossed the shoreline and caused most damage. The greatest damage was in the villages of Arop and Warapu which were removed almost without trace, leaving only the concrete foundation slabs of churches and classrooms.

The Aitape tsunami was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, and compares with the catastrophic eruption of Mount Lamington in January 1951, in which 3000 people were killed. Since the beginnings of written history in this region, the Aitape tsunami is exceeded in impact by only the 1888 tsunami, triggered by the collapse of Ritter Island volcano.

Recent tsunami in the Solomon Islands (6 Feb, 2013) which killed 10 people and displaced 6000 others[2], also generated great fear that similar events can occur in PNG, and the Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011, created small marine waves that washed up across the entire Pacific, including onshore in PNG, but there was no damage.


Papua New Guinea has the most active volcanoes in the South West Pacific. Its most active volcanoes include Manam, Karkar, Lamington, Langila, Ulawun, Rabaul and Bagana.

In 1951, within four to five days of the initial signs of unrest, Mount Lamington in Oro Province erupted, killing 3,000 people.

UNDP, RVO and officials in PNG’s Northern Province have worked on contingency plans for Mount Lamington. An estimated 40,000 people would have to be evacuated if it erupts again, and some of the communities have no roads.

The Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) has been funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) since 1995 after the Rabaul volcano erupted and destroyed most of the town. It monitors eight of the country’s most active, high risk volcanos and receives daily reports and sends people for closer monitoring if there are reports of unrest.

RVO, working with provincial disaster officers, also conducts awareness programmes with populations around high-risk volcanoes, including Lamington, Ulawun, Pago, Karkar, Manam, Langila, Garbuna and Bagana.

Cyclones and floods

Recent disasters have included floods in April 2014 caused by Tropical Cyclone Ita (which killed 26 people in the Solomon Islands and reached the Australian mainland category 5). Widespread flooding in the islands of Milne Bay displaced 15,000 people.

Other major recent events include January 2013[3]: Heavy rainfall since the begin of the cyclone season in November 2012 has resulted in floods and landslides affecting homes, food gardens, water sources and infrastructure in several provinces of Papua New Guinea. Estimates from a range of sources indicate that up to 35,000 people might be affected.

Also in May 2013 it was reported by the aid agency Oxfam the flooding situation in Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik province reached “crisis point.” Seven people were confirmed dead and about 11,500 people have been affected by flooding along the Sepik River.[4]

Also in January 2013 the Red Cross reported[5] 27,000 flood-affected people in Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province remain in desperate need of basic items like food and clean drinking water. This was flooding which started in November 2012.

On May 25, 2010 it was reported[6] an estimated 20,000 people in remote parts of East Sepik Province, northwestern Papua New Guinea, were affected by floods – the worst in 40 years – along the Sepik River. It was added in the report that “residents have been able to sustain themselves with minimum levels of outside support thanks to traditional coping mechanisms.”

Worst affected were Angoram, Ambunti and Wosara-Gowi districts

Health  epidemics

The World Health Organisation reports[7] PNG has the worst health status in the Pacific region and ranks 153rd of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, worse than Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Tuberculosis, malaria and other communicable diseases cause 62% of deaths nationwide.

Only 33% of rural people have access to clean water, a major factor in the 2009 cholera outbreak that affected 14,000 people (more than 50 deaths) while diarrhoea is the seventh bigger killer and a measles outbreak in 2014 was reported as “an epidemic.”

Disaster information

Local news outlets in PNG report in an ad hoc way on disasters and emergencies. The PNG National Broadcasting Corporation provides consistent coverage at times, but is not always able to provide useful information to enable the community to prepare, or warnings which will enable it to respond as a disaster unfolds. It has a project in place to rectify this.

Technically NBC is in a position to respond better with warnings, alerts and comprehensive coverage.

During the cholera epidemic NBC arranged with the Department of Health to broadcast public service announcements.