Keeping watch on volcanic activity

At the northern tip of New Britain island, the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) keeps watch over 16 active volcanoes across Papua New Guinea (PNG).



PNG, with about six million inhabitants, is situated on the Pacific Rim of Fire and highly prone to disaster.



"Unless we are prepared it's going to be chaotic and a disaster," Rabi Narayan Gaudo, UN Development Programme (UNDP) project manager for disaster risk management, told IRIN. "The time gap between each eruption can be hundreds of years, which is something the government doesn't perceive as an immediate risk. We also know that some volcanoes don't give you much warning time."



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.



"When you don't know when something's going to strike, there's a danger of being lethargic," Gaudo warned. "In terms of risks - 40,000 people exposed to volcanic risk, that's a big number. I would say it's urgent."



Monitoring volcanoes



RVO - funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) since 1995 after the Rabaul volcano erupted and destroyed most of the town - keeps eight of the country's most active, high risk volcanos under surveillance using monitoring equipment. It receives daily reports and sends people for closer monitoring if there are reports of unrest.



However, alerting the nearby populations remains a challenge. Most people live in remote areas, so RVO would alert them through businesses and government agencies that have telephones, fax machines and high frequency radios.



"One of the issues in Papua New Guinea is reaching people as soon as possible - providing information to the people in the quickest way possible," said Ima Itikarai, assistant director of RVO. "Papua New Guinea has a mobile phone system, and there are discussions on how to utilize this technology to get the information to the people in the quickest way possible, but we're still in the early stages of discussion."



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.



Before these programmes, Itikarai said, "even though they lived near the volcano and were aware of eruptions, they were not aware of volcano hazards and what they would do if a major eruption would happen".



Land for IDPs



PNG is no stranger to eruptions. When the 10km-wide volcanic island of Manam erupted in 2004, the entire population of more than 10,000 was evacuated to the mainland.



However, six years later, many thousand internally displaced remain in the mainland camps, sowing violence between islanders and local residents in a country where 97 percent of the land is collectively owned by various ethnic groups. Conflict often stems from land disputes.



"To deal with evacuation, moving the people and providing what they need, that's not a problem. The main concern is the land issue," said Andrew Oaego, who oversees response coordination for the National Disaster Center.



With the Manam evacuation, the relocation to nearby Bogia District was rushed and expected to be only six months, not six years.



"The biggest risk and the reason we need to make sure we are prepared is there can be massive displacement," said Jock Paul, the humanitarian affairs coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).



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