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Strong aftershocks rock PNG highlands as 150,000 wait for aid

Strong aftershocks have rocked Papua New Guinea's remote and rugged highlands as aid agencies voice concern for an estimated 150,000 people they say are in urgent need of food and water supplies.

Three aftershocks stronger than magnitude-5 shook the mountainous Southern Highlands, about 600 kilometres north-west of the capital Port Moresby early on Monday, the US Geological Survey said, including a shallow magnitude-6 quake.

“We haven't slept. It's been shaking all through the night," said William Bando, provincial administrator of Hela Province, by telephone from Tari, about 40 kilometres from where the shocks hit.

“What we experienced this morning could have caused more damage, but we don't know … it almost threw me out of bed.”

The strong tremors hit a region already badly damaged by the magnitude-7.5 quake that struck in the early hours of February 26, killing at least 31 people and triggering landslides, flattening buildings and closing oil and gas operations.

The director of the International Red Cross in PNG, Udaya Regmi, said the quake destroyed or damaged the homes of about 7,000 people, while 147,000 were in severe need of food, water and sanitation.

Landslides have cut roads, preventing the delivery of aid to several places where it's most needed.

“The challenge is road access, it's still not accessible to trucks and four-wheel-drives,” Regmi said.

“Big trucks cannot go there. It's one of the reasons the food is becoming less and less.

“There are no fears of starvation yet but we've not got the full picture.”

Papua New Guinea declared a state of emergency across the earthquake-hit region last week but the scale of the disaster will not be known until relief workers and authorities can complete their assessments in the area.

A report by the World Food Programme for the United Nations two days after the earthquake estimated 465,000 people were exposed to the disaster of which 143,000 needed urgent humanitarian assistance and 64,000 were suffering from extreme food insecurity.

“Public health and public hygiene are now concerns," Anna Bryan, program director for CARE International in PNG, said.

Geohazards experts also warned of another potential crisis, saying the landslides had blocked rivers and created dams, or "quake lakes", that could break and flood in the rainy season, putting thousands of people at risk.

“A big lake can build-up behind the blockage and under some circumstances when the water reaches the top of the blockage it erodes it away, very quickly releasing a spectacular flood which is obviously a very major hazard for people downstream,” geohazards specialist Dave Petley, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Sheffield, told the ABC's Pacific Beat programme.

Professor Petley said satellite images of the Tagari River, a large waterway draining the central part of the area affected by the earthquake, showed at least four landslides that have blocked the valley.

“One of those appears to be extremely large … [it] is certainly building up a substantial lake,” he said.

Professor Petley said there was an urgent need to assess the risk of collapse and determine how many people lived downstream.

Australia, New Zealand and the Red Cross have all pledged aid to help the recovery process.

“The rugged terrain and loss of communications in the area impacted means it is taking time to build a complete picture of the damage but we know that tens of thousands of people are reported as requiring humanitarian assistance,” New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said in a statement on Monday.

Resources companies operating in the region have also pledged million of dollars in aid

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