Crisis looms for tsunami-hit Tonga as nations rush to help

20-Jan-2022 Intellasia | JapanTimes | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Nations rushed to aid tsunami-hit Tonga on Wednesday, with Japan preparing to offer funds and other help and New Zealand Navy vessels set to arrive with critical supplies.

The Pacific nation is reeling from a volcanic eruption and tsunami and remains largely cut off from the outside world.

Aid could soon arrive by air, as the country announced it has removed a thick coat of ash from an international runway after days of painstaking effort.

UN crisis coordinator Jonathan Veitch said the runway on the Pacific kingdom’s main island, once buried in five to 10 centimeters of volcanic ash, was again operational.

It is “cleared but not in use yet,” he said, adding that Tonga could receive much-stalled flights from Australia and New Zealand from Thursday.

In Tokyo on Tuesday, deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said in a news conference that Japan plans to offer more than $1 million (JPY 114 million) in funds for Tonga. The Self-Defense Forces is considering transporting drinking water and other relief supplies as well, he said.

Two New Zealand Navy vessels will arrive in Tonga on Friday carrying water supplies.

Hundreds of homes on Tonga’s smaller outer islands have been destroyed, and at least three people were killed after Saturday’s huge eruption triggered tsunami waves, which rolled over the islands causing what the government has called an unprecedented disaster.

Due to the condition of its airport and with communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation has mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.

The Red Cross said its teams in Tonga had confirmed that salt water from the tsunami and volcanic ash were polluting the drinking water sources of tens of thousands of people.

“Securing access to safe drinking water is a critical immediate priority… as there is a mounting risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea,” Katie Greenwood, the Pacific head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a blast heard 2,300 kilometers away in New Zealand and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean.

James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, said the force of the eruption was estimated to be equivalent to five to 10 megatons of TNT, an explosive force more than 500 times the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry said Tonga had approved the arrival of HMNZS Aotearoa and the HMNZS Wellington in the coronavirus-free nation, where concerns about a potential COVID-19 outbreak are likely to complicate relief efforts.

Simon Griffiths, captain of the Aotearoa, said his ship was carrying 250,000 litres of water, and had the capacity to produce another 70,000 litres a day, along with other supplies.

“For the people of Tonga, we’re heading their way now with a whole lot of water,” Griffiths said in a release.

Other countries and agencies including the United Nations are drawing up plans to help.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said it would send help, including water and food, when the archipelago’s main Fua’amotu International Airport reopens. It was not damaged but was covered in ash, which has to be cleared manually,

“We thought that it would be operational yesterday, but it hasn’t been fully cleared yet because more ash has been falling,” Fiji-based UN co-ordinator Jonathan Veitch said on Wednesday.

Pacific neighbour Fiji will send defense engineers on Australia’s HMAS Adelaide, which is due to set sail from Brisbane for Tonga on Friday, a Fiji military spokesman told a briefing in Suva.

Waves reaching up to 15 meters hit the outer Ha’apia island group, destroying all of the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the prime minister’s office said.

On the west coast of Tongatapu, residents were being moved to evacuation centers as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.

New Zealand said power has now been restored, and cleanup and damage assessments were going on and Tongan authorities were distributing relief supplies.

Australia and New Zealand have promised immediate financial assistance. The US Agency for International Development approved $100,000 in immediate assistance to support people affected by volcanic eruptions and tsunami waves.

The Asian Development Bank was discussing with Tonga whether it would declare a state of emergency to draw on a $10 million disaster funding facility, senior bank official Emma Veve said.

Tonga is still largely offline after the volcano severed the sole undersea fiber-optics communication cable.

International mobile phone network provider Digicel has set up an interim system on Tongatapu using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish, the New Zealand foreign ministry said.

That would allow a 2G connection to be established but the connection is patchy and amounts to about 10 percent of usual capacity,

US cable company SubCom has advised it will take at least four weeks for Tonga’s cable be repaired, it added.

Tongan communities abroad have posted images from families on Facebook, giving a glimpse of the devastation, with homes reduced to rubble, fallen trees, cracked roads and sidewalks and everything coated with grey ash.

Aid agencies, including the United Nations, are preparing to send relief flights to Tonga but without personnel who disembark to avoid introducing the coronavirus, Veitch said.

Tonga is one of the few countries that is COVID-19 free and an outbreak there would disastrous, he said.

“They’ve been very cautious about opening their borders like many Pacific islands, and that’s because of the history of disease outbreaks in the Pacific which has wiped out societies here,” Veitch told a briefing.


Category: Regional

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