Papua New Guinea’s claim that a highland landslide buried 2,000 people has come under scrutiny. Satellite imagery, disaster experts, and local officials cast doubt on the estimate. Prime Minister James Marape told parliament an “initial estimation” suggested over 2,000 deaths. However, only six bodies have been recovered from the debris so far.

Nearly a week after the landslide on Mount Mungalo, heavy machinery has yet to reach the disaster site. Only a small portion of the area has been searched. The initial estimate of 2,000 fatalities is being questioned due to the low number of recovered bodies and conflicting reports about the number of people in the landslide’s path.

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Local ward councillor Jamain Yandam said, “The exact number of victims is still not known.” The estimate of 2,000 was based on assumptions about the population of the affected wards, Yambeli and Lapak. Community leader Miok Michael reported that 19 of his relatives are missing and feared dead but acknowledged the true toll remains unclear.

David Petley, a landslide expert and vice-chancellor at the University of Hull, expressed skepticism about the 2,000 death toll. He pointed to satellite imagery indicating that such a high concentration of people was unlikely. “The pre-failure images just don’t support the idea that there was that concentration of people,” he told AFP.

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Ward councillor Yandam estimated fatalities in the hundreds, not thousands, based on the average number of people per household. Some officials claim a recent influx of people fleeing tribal violence increased the number of homes, but doubts persist about the 2,000 estimate.

Estimates about the number of fatalities are crucial for scaling response efforts and securing donor funding. Papua New Guinea’s official estimates may be based on unreliable census data or voter rolls. The last census was in 2011, and efforts to carry out a new tally in 2021 failed due to lack of funding and training.

Drone footage from YouTube shows the extent of the damage:

David Petley warned that the true toll might never be known due to the large volume of debris and the difficulty in excavating it. He described the landslide as a violent event with severe implications.

Reports suggest over 2,000 people may be buried alive, with 670 confirmed dead so far. Health experts warn of potential disease outbreaks due to standing water, lack of medical care, and poor sanitation. Mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria are also a concern due to pooling water in the aftermath of the landslide.

Despite challenges, local authorities and residents continue to search for survivors and assess the damage. The international community is watching closely, but the true impact of the landslide may take time to fully understand.