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Tuesday, 20 September 1994
Page: 966

Senator COONEY —I address my question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Can the minister inform the Senate of the current situation in Rabaul following the volcanic eruptions? Are any Australians involved and, if so, are they safe? Has the Australian government been approached to provide emergency relief assistance?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am sure that all honourable senators—indeed, all Australians—will share my concern about the extent of the suffering and the damage that has already been caused by volcanic eruptions in Rabaul since early yesterday morning. Rabaul holds a place in the hearts of many Australians, including those who served there during the Second World War and, subsequently, during the pre-independence administration, or those who have been there as tourists or visitors, or have lived and worked there in recent times.

  The devastating circumstances of the eruptions have made it very difficult to gain an absolutely clear picture of the present situation with respect to both the effect on the population of the area and the effect on the physical infrastructure of the town and the surroundings. There can be certainly no doubt that the destruction and the dislocation which has already been caused will have a devastating and long-term impact on the livelihood of the people of east New Britain, on the economy of the island's region and perhaps indeed on the economy of Papua New Guinea generally.

  The current situation is this: volcanic activity in Rabaul commenced suddenly on 18 September—two days ago—and five vents from two volcanoes continue to discharge tonnes of volcanic ash and rock debris high into the atmosphere. It is estimated that Rabaul is now covered by 75 centimetres of volcanic ash, mud and rock debris. Papua New Guinea authorities are hopeful that the easing of subterranean pressure through discharges from those five vents will reduce the risk of further violent eruptions; but, of course, nobody can be absolutely sure. The arrangements that were made by the Papua New Guinea authorities to evacuate the 30,000 residents of the town and the surrounding areas to safe locations appear to have been very effective.

  We have received reports now of two fatalities, but they remain unconfirmed as to the precise details. Certainly there will be extensive damage to the airstrip, which is close to one of the volcanoes, and to high density housing; but again it is premature to make an estimate of the scale of that damage.

  The normal Australian community in Rabaul is estimated by the High Commission to number approximately 200, and all of those have been evacuated safely, with one exception which I will come to in a moment. Our High Commission in Port Moresby has advised that the small number of additional Australian tourists in Rabaul at the time have also been assisted in moving to safe areas.

  We have no reports of any Australian casualties, but we are concerned about the welfare of one Australian citizen who did not in fact depart Rabaul at the main evacuation stage. The High Commission has so far been able to maintain telephone contact with him. The PNG National Disaster and Emergency Services organisation is aware of his situation. There was a rescue operation attempted late yesterday but that was unsuccessful. Efforts will continue as conditions permit.

  As to assistance more generally: our staff in Port Moresby and in the Rabaul vicinity are in close contact, as honourable senators would expect, with Papua New Guinea officials to determine in what areas we might be able to provide assistance in the current situation and the form that it might take. At this stage there has not been a request from the PNG government for assistance, but we anticipate that there will be a need for water filtration equipment, for temporary shelter, for water containers and for food as short-term requirements. We have a Hercules aircraft on stand-by to respond with emergency supplies and, if needed, aircraft shuttle services as soon as these needs are confirmed.