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Tonga's 'once in a millennium' Catastrophe

Tonga stands tall with Commonwealth countries first and foremost in their support.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apa volcano, situated 65km north of Tonga’s capital Nuku’afola, erupted on the 15th January in its most powerful explosion since 1100 AD. The volcano sits along the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’, a line of volcanoes on tectonic plate borders in the Pacific Ocean. In its first response to the eruption, the Tongan government described an “unprecedented disaster” unfolding on its 170 islands that are home to over 100,000 people. Activity from the volcano had actually been recorded as early as a month previously, though the Tonga Geological Services deemed Hunga Tonga-Hunda Ha’apa dormant on the 11th of January. Three days later, on the 14th January, the volcano sent ash and gas 20km into the atmosphere in its first eruption, with the Tonga Geological Services issuing tsunami warnings shortly after, and waves 30cm in height being recorded. The following day, a significantly larger eruption occurred during the early evening in Tonga, with satellite imagery revealing an ash cloud 260 km in diameter. So large was the explosion, it could be heard in New Zealand, located over 2,000km away. A much larger tsunami wave, measured at around 1.2 metres, was soon recorded near the capital, prompting warnings in areas around the Pacific basin, including Alaska, a state situated around 10,000 km away from the volcano, to be issued shortly after.

The extent of the damage on the Commonwealth nation of Tonga is, for the moment, largely unknown, though initial reports have given the wider world a narrow insight into the plethora of security threats this natural disaster poses for the archipelago. One estimation has been given by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), in which as many as 80,000 people could have been affected either by the large eruption or the resulting tsunami. The latter phenomenon - triggered by a displacement of water as the magma arose through the earth’s crust - is thought to have flooded an indeterminate number of houses, forcing some locals to higher ground. Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, meanwhile, revealed she had been informed that boats and large boulders had been deposited onto the shores of the capital. As of the 18th January, three deaths have so far been confirmed by Tongan government. According to the OCHA, Fonoi and Mango, two low-lying islands of Tonga, have sent distress signals, while a central group of islands named Ha’apai are yet to show any signs of communication.

A major impact hampering both recovery efforts and our wider knowledge of the volcano’s impact has been the destruction of communication infrastructure. An undersea cable that links Tonga to Fiji is thought to be severely disrupted, if not completely cut, limiting immediate communication efforts. Damage of this nature has severely restricted humanitarian agencies from delivering critical supplies to the Tongan population. In reference to the damage of the Southern Cross undersea network, Quenelda Clegg, Humanitarian Network Chair at the Council for International Development, stated that the reliable information needed for the delivery of humanitarian assistance was ‘near impossible right now’. Compounding issues is the added factor of the Covid-19 pandemic, which Tonga has hitherto remained largely unaffected by. There is a concern that, by receiving international assistance, the country may inadvertently expose itself to cases of coronavirus. As Curtis Tu’halangingie, Tonga deputy head of mission in Australia, told Reuters, “We don’t want to bring in another wave - a tsunami of Covid-19”. Accordingly, all forms of humanitarian aid will be subject to government quarantine measures, further delaying the delivery of potentially essential supplies to residents.

The volcano’s large release of ash has also posed problems for the country’s transport infrastructure, namely a key airport runway that was planned to be used for aid deliveries. As the runway is currently under a layer of ash, New Zealand’s military has been forced to suspend its provision of supplies by air for at least until tomorrow (19th January), though it has been able to send aid using two of its naval ships. Both Australia and New Zealand were finally able to send reconnaissance planes on Monday to assess damage to Tonga’s critical infrastructure, though their reports are yet to be released. Zed Seselja, Australian minister for the Pacific, stated that ‘We know there is some significant damage, and know there is significant damage to resorts’. An initial $1 million support package was then announced by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Tuesday.

There is significant concern surrounding how Tonga’s food and water supplies have been affected, with Lord Fakafanua, Tonga’s speaker of parliament, urging ‘immediate assistance’ in these areas. As identified by the WHO, air pollution is also a danger, with the ash released from the volcano posing a threat to the health of residents. So far, the ash is confirmed to have contaminated water supplies in Fonoi and Mango, as reported by its district officer. For the medium-term, scientists are also worried about the potential for acid rain to be released onto the islands, due to the release of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen from the volcano. This may inflict severe damage to staple foods. “Depending on how long the eruptions last”, Shane Cronin, a volcanologist said, “food security could be compromised”.

Tonga is in need of international assistance. It is telling that immediate action response has come from Australia and New Zealand. Both countries providing critical humanitarian, surveillance, and communications services. The Pacific Islands Forum has also been quick to emphasise its preparedness to help. Commonwealth countries have been first and foremost in their support for Tonga, in this once in a millennium event. In standing quickly and steadfastly with Tonga in its time of most pressing need Commonwealth countries have demonstrated the importance of the association’s bonds, and the opportunity for more coordinated activity. Tonga’s priorities now are to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe, to re-establish communications and transport links, and to maintain public law and order, as it prepares for the task of re-building the country. An organised international response under direction from the Tongan government is as important in the medium and long term as it is in the immediate aftermath. The Commonwealth community should seize that mantel and help provide an integrated response to Tonga’s crisis, both now and in the vital next stage.


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