The National, Thursday 09th Febuary 2012
IT is becoming increasingly obvious that PNG authorities are ill-equipped to respond effectively to natural and man-made disasters which have become all too frequent in recent times.
Inadequately funded, lacking in resources and equipment and manpower as well as rescue craft and machinery, the National Disaster and Emergency Service (NDES) is nothing more than a paper operation which has been neglected by governments over the last decade and a half.
This was none more so evident than early last Thursday morning when the Lae-bound passenger ship the mv Rabaul Queen, owned and operated by the Rabaul Shipping Company, sank in rough seas off the Huon Gulf coast.
The first rescue craft on site within an hour of the sinking were foreign vessels that were in the vicinity of the stricken boat.
They had responded to a distress signal and did their utmost in plucking survivors from the swirling seas and bringing them to safety.
It says a lot about the inability of the NDES when the first government response of any kind came in the form of Australian Defence Force helicopters and craft scouring the immediate radius of the incident.
That strong winds of up to 75kph and 5m swells played a large part in the tragedy is undeniable.
But those adverse weather conditions, coupled with the apparent disregard for a warning the same week by the National Weather Service to keep ships moored because of unusually strong winds, combined to cause the country’s worst maritime disasters.
Rescuers were able to save 246 people in the 48 hours following the mishap. However, what makes this tragedy even more unfortunate is the number of lives lost at sea.
That figure is estimated to be over a hundred with unconfirmed reports, eye witness and survivors’ accounts pointing to the fact that the ship was carrying well over its licensed capacity of 310 passengers.
Human error and negligence had its part in the loss of life.
Why the shipping operator, and more specifically the captain and crew, allowed more passengers than what was stipulated by law can only be described as ignorance, incompetence and a dismal appreciation of a service provider’s number one priority – the safety of its customers.
There are now claims surfacing from distraught survivors that a figure exceeding 400 is closer to the truth of the number of people on board the ill-fated Rabaul Queen when it capsized.
It will take weeks and even months to verify that claim as the poor record keeping procedures by the Rabaul Shipping cannot confirm or deny these allegations.
The official ship’s manifest indicates there were 351 passengers and 12 crew on board.
Only time will give us a better account of the number of those missing and presumed dead. Accident investigators will have to rely on the testimony of survivors as well as the crew and rescuers to piece together the events leading up to the sinking and more importantly just how many people were on board and subsequently the exact number of people missing.
This latest incident is only one of several major calamities which have hit PNG in the last 20 years.
From volcanic eruptions in the 1990s seriously affecting Rabaul and Manam Island; a tsumani caused by an undersea earthquake which decimated the Aitape coastline and killed and maimed thousands in the underlying communities; floods which have devastated food gardens in many rural communities; deadly landslips, droughts and crop destroying frosts in the highlands region, other maritime incidents to weather-induced airplane crashes, it is painfully obvious that the country’s geography and climate are the powder keg waiting to ignite at any moment and at any given location.
One would therefore hope that the NDES, as the first response from the state in times of disaster and catastrophe, have the means to save lives and property. Sadly, this is not the case.
PNG, despite its abundant resources and earning potential, will continue to rely on foreign aid and rescue facilities to provide the bulk of rescue efforts particularly in the crucial stages immediately following a disaster. That is a failing which will end up costing more lives.
When it comes to the forces of nature and the carnage they can wreak, no one is to blame for they are unavoidable at the best of times – such is life. But we are culpable when we put ourselves in harm’s way without first being prepared and knowing the dangers inherent in those activities.