What We Know About the Papua New Guinea Landslide

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Nearly five days after a landslide devastated a remote section of Papua New Guinea, officials in the Pacific Island nation have begun evacuating residents, because the area remains unsafe.

“Rocks are still moving, the mountain is still crumbling, and we are seeing rock and debris pile up on what’s already happened,” Sandis Tsaka, the administrator of Enga Province, the site of the disaster, said on Tuesday evening. “The land around is starting to cave in.”

Those conditions, Mr. Tsaka said, had also prevented officials from bringing in heavy equipment to clear the debris and search for survivors. The circumstances also make it difficult to understand the true scale of the tragedy, with estimates of the death toll ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.

Here is what we know so far:

The landslide hit the community around Yambali village around 3 a.m. on Friday. Boulders the size of shipping containers demolished buildings, burying at least 60 homes and at least one elementary school.

Papua New Guinea is especially vulnerable to natural disasters, and this landslide disrupted the main highway into the region, making it harder to deliver aid.

Videos posted on social media showed residents using shovels and hand picks to look for survivors under massive rocks. One United Nations official estimated that the debris was as high as 26 feet.

Estimates of the death toll have varied widely. A United Nations agency put the number at about 670 on Sunday, but a day later the local authorities said that as many as 2,000 had perished.

“While officials agree that the death toll will be high, it’s hard to say how many have actually died,” said Nicholas Booth, the Papua New Guinea resident representative for the United Nations Development Program.

As of Tuesday, only six bodies had been recovered, according to a U.N. statement.

In addition, more than 150 structures were damaged or buried, Mr. Booth said.

The landslide occurred in a remote but densely populated area that is part of the highlands of Papua New Guinea. An electoral roll in 2022 estimated the region’s population at just under 4,000, although that did not account for children or teenagers under 18, Mr. Booth said.

The population count was further complicated, he said, by tribal conflicts in the region, which have led to internal displacement of people.

Tensions among tribes have been on the rise for years, according to experts, who say that the scarcity of basic resources like water and land has fueled conflict.

On Saturday morning, a tribal clash blocked access to the site of the disaster. Eight people died in the clash over the weekend, and 30 houses were burned down, according to the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency.

In February, over two dozen people were killed in a gunfight between tribes in Enga Province. At the time, the police said that up to 17 tribes were involved in the violence. Last year, over 150 people were killed in tribal clashes, prompting the provincial government to put the region under a lockdown for three months.

The deadly landslide struck at a tense political time for the country — which, though rich in natural resources, remains underdeveloped. Prime Minister James Marape, who has been in power since 2019, is fighting off opposition attempts to put forward a motion of no confidence against his government in Parliament.

Mr. Marape had promised to transform the economy of Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s poorest countries, and won re-election in 2022. He has tried to court both the United States and China, who are vying for influence in the Pacific.

But economic worries persist. In January, a wage dispute between the government and hundreds of civil servants and police officers turned into deadly riots. Experts say that youth unemployment is a big issue for Papua New Guinea, with nearly two-thirds of its population estimated to be under 25.