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The death toll is expected to climb from the landslide in Papua New Guinea

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Rescue and recovery efforts are ongoing in Papua New Guinea, where hundreds of people are feared dead following a massive landslide.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yes, the remains of only six people have been recovered since the landslide on Friday buried more than 150 homes in the island nation's remote Enga province. The U.N.'s migration agency estimates nearly 700 people may have died, while the country's government has nearly tripled that estimate.

MARTÍNEZ: Joined now by Stephen Dziedic - he's a foreign affairs reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Stephen, what do we know about the rescue and recovery efforts, starting with this new figure from the government?

STEPHEN DZIEDIC: Yeah, there have been two separate figures, as you mentioned, that have been put out. It's quite confusing. The U.N. says around 675 people have been killed. Papua New Guinea's government has suggested that figure could be closer to 2,000, perhaps even more. But A, it's difficult to get a handle on it because so few bodies have been recovered. As you mentioned, the recovery effort is painfully slow. That's largely because the area which we're talking about here is very, very remote. So there's simply no way, at least at this stage, to get heavy earthmoving equipment here, so that means that people in this part of Enga province are essentially digging through huge mounds of rubble, sometimes 6 or 8 meters in height, with their bare hands, with sticks and, if they're lucky, with shovels. So it's painfully slow progress.

MARTÍNEZ: I know it's a remote region, but what else makes it difficult?

DZIEDIC: Yeah, there are a few things here. Not only is it remote, but when landslips do happen - and it happens quite a lot because it's such mountainous terrain - the roads, which aren't of great quality, are washed away very quickly and very easily. So that means if you want to get through, it takes time or you have to use something like a helicopter. And helicopters, as you can imagine, are not non-existent in Papua New Guinea, but they are in short supply.

Then the other thing to consider, sadly, is tribal violence. There's been a resurgence in that tribal fighting over the last year or two. It's a long-standing problem, but it's got worse. And so that's another thing that authorities, including U.N. agencies and other countries like Australia, have to weigh up closely as they look to try and go in. The last thing they want to do is get caught up in that. So that's yet another barrier to effective assistance.

MARTÍNEZ: But what about - 1,000 people at least have been displaced. What are some of the biggest concerns for survivors?

DZIEDIC: Yeah, well, it could be far more than that because not only are you looking at the people who are immediately displaced, there are also now murmurs that people who are essentially a bit further down the mountain, some 8- or even 10,000 people - they may need to be evacuated as well because of these persistent concerns that the mountain, which essentially partially collapsed on Friday - that it may collapse further. So you've not only got around 1,000 or perhaps more people who need shelter and water - some streams have been buried in the debris - but you've also got potentially 8- or 10,000 people further down the mountain who may have to move. That's an enormous, enormous logistical ask on the Papua New Guinean government.

MARTÍNEZ: So we know there's been a request for assistance. What's the status of that request for international support?

DZIEDIC: Well, only one government has responded so far. That's the Australian government, which announced that it would make an initial contribution of $2.5 million - so not a huge amount - to essentially bring in additional assistance experts who are able to coordinate emergency response as well as emergency supplies.

There are plenty of willing countries who want to help. The difficult thing will be making sure they're not treading on one another's toes and that any response is effectively coordinated.

MARTÍNEZ: Any ideas as to what caused this landslide to be so devastating? Or is it maybe too early on that?

DZIEDIC: This is not an unusual event. Landslips and landslides happen quite regularly in the highlands. This does seem to be a particularly devastating one. Just the scale of it is extraordinary. It may be that it's just a very large one, which has had the very terrible misfortune to land directly on a fairly highly populated area. It's simply too early to say at this stage.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Stephen Dziedic, a foreign affairs reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Stephen, thanks.

DZIEDIC: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.