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By Korugl-Kumugl

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 25, 2001 – The National)---Traffic is coming to a halt on the Okuk Highway, threatening the country's economy and social services in the Highlands region, business leaders have warned.

Frequent heavy rains in recent weeks coupled with the lack of a drainage system have seen landslides occurring in several parts of the notorious Daulo and Kassam passes which connect Mount Hagen in Western Highlands province, Kundiawa in Chimbu province, Goroka in Eastern Highlands province and Lae in Morobe province.

Existing potholes have deteriorated while countless new ones have appeared. Trucking firms operating between Lae and the Highlands have scaled down operations, giving rise to fears that fuel supplies would run out soon along with goods and services.

A company executive at East West Transport in Mount Hagen said yesterday that none of their vehicles have arrived from Lae and those bound for Lae remain stranded in Goroka.

Paschal Taru, a supervisor at the company's Kagamuga depot, said operations have virtually ground to a halt.

Warwick Hatcher, general manager of Western Fuel Distributors, which handles Mobil products, said their stocks at the moment can last for up to two weeks.

After that he said he will lay off workers and shut operations pending repairs on the Highway.

The Road Transport Association and the Lae Chamber of Commerce and Industry yesterday said the situation on the Okuk Highway could not be ignored any more as it had developed into a crisis.

"It is definitely going to have an impact on the economy and the social sector in the country," Chris Carter, vice president of the Road Transport Association and Alan McLay, president of the Lae Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in a joint statement yesterday.

"Trucking firms are careful now, especially those that carry fuel. They are assessing the condition before they send any vehicles through," Mr. McLay said.

The region is a major market for consumer goods, a favorite destination for tourists and resource developers in the region frequently depend on the Highway to move staff and equipment.

An estimate of the damage that the deteriorating condition of the Highway is costing the economy is yet to be determined.

However, provincial authorities and business houses say the Highlands region contributes some 70 percent of the country's total revenue through the export of gold and oil from projects in Enga and Southern Highlands, and coffee in Western Highlands, Chimbu and Eastern Highlands.

A crisis meeting held between the LCCI and the RTA on Monday concluded with a resolution to come up with their own initiatives to address the problem.

Mr. Carter and Mr. McLay said they plan to write to Transport and Works Minister Alfred Pogo to impress upon the government the need to repair the Highway as soon as possible.

Plans are also under way for private engineers to be brought in to assess the damage and advise the two bodies on what would be required to fix the problem and the length of time it would take.

Alternative ways are also being considered to keep the supply route to and from the Highlands region open, Mr. Carter and Mr. McLay said.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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