Tonga volcano eruption: At least 3 dead, amid severe destruction

18 January 2022

At least three people have died in Tonga following the massive volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami wave that hit over the weekend. Homes and other buildings across the archipelago have suffered major damage.

Islands covered in ash, dozens of homes destroyed

According to a Tongan Government press release on Tuesday, the three fatalities are a British national, and two Tongan nationals.

The UN World Health Organization, WHO, has reported that many people are still missing, whilst around 90 people headed to safety in evacuation centres on the island of Eua, and many others fled to the homes of friends and family.

On the main island of Tongatapu, around 100 houses have been damaged, and 50 completely destroyed, according to the UN humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, which updated journalists in Geneva on Tuesday. 

The agency pointed out that it is still in the process of collecting information about the scale of destruction, and it has not been possible to contact any of the islands of the Ha’apai et Vava’u chains.

The Mango and Fonoi islands, which form part of the Ha’apai chain, are a particular cause for concern, said OCHA Spokeperson Jens Laerke, with surveillance flights showing widespread damage to buildings, and images from UN Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) show that, on the small island of Nomuka, one of the closest to the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, 41 of 104 visible structures have been damaged, and almost all are covered by ash, although the Centre notes that this assessment remains to be verified by teams on the ground.

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier, told journalists on Tuesday that Tongatapu is covered by around two centimetres of volcanic dust and ash, raising concerns of air, water and food pollution.

There is some positive news, he added: all health facilities on the main island are fully operational, and clean-up operations have already begun.

Biggest eruption in 3 decades

The volcanic eruption was the largest recorded in thirty years. A huge, 20 km high mushroom cloud of smoke and ash was followed by a tsunami, and the eruption was heard as far away as Australia and New Zealand, causing tsunami warnings across the Pacific.

Waves as high as 1.2 metres hit the capital, Nuku’alofa, whose inhabitants fled to high ground, leaving behinds flooded houses, whilst rocks and ash rained from the sky.

The WHO reports that the Tongan Government reacted quickly to the crisis, deploying a warship to the Ha’api islands, with a team from the WHO-trained Tonga Emergency Medical Assistance Team on board, ready to help the injured.

The Government is advising the Tongan population to stay inside, wear masks if they have to go outside, and drink bottled water to avoid health risks arising from the fallen ash.

An image on the Tonga Islands where the heavy ash fall from the recent volcanic eruption.
© New Zealand Defence Force
An image on the Tonga Islands where the heavy ash fall from the recent volcanic eruption.

The emergency relief effort is being coordinated by the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT), which brings together UN agencies, the Red Cross and international NGOs, to organize on the ground and provide support to the Tongan Government.

The priorities for the team are to help re-establish communications, find ways to transport emergency aid, and provide technical advice on matters such as ensuring the safety of drinking water supplies, which have been seriously affected by volcanic ash.

Early estimates of the scale of the crisis have been relayed by the WHO country liaison officer, Dr Yutaro Setoya, whose satellite phone is one of the few sources of information from the island nation.

International phone and internet services are still unreliable, after a key underwater communication cable was severed during the eruption. It is estimated that it will take several weeks for the cable to be repaired.

“Yuta has literally been standing outside from dawn until long into the night for the past few days to ensure that the phone can reach the satellite signal and he can pass along vital information,” said WHO’s Health Cluster Coordinator for the Pacific, Sean Casey. 

“All of us here at WHO, and in the broader UN family, are thinking of Tonga right now and doing what we can to support the government’s response efforts.”

Support from Australia and New Zealand

Speaking at a UN briefing on Tuesday, Jonathan Veitch, Resident Coordinator ad interim for the Pacific Islands, said that a UN health team has been sent to Ha’apai to set up a temporary clinic, because of the destruction of health facilities there, and supply emergency aid, including food, water and tents.

Mr. Veitch added that support from neighbouring donors has been swift, particularly from Australia and New Zealand, which have deployed defence ships to provide immediate relief and urgent equipment, particularly water and sanitation supplies, and desalination equipment to purify sea water.

Because of continued ashfall it has proven more difficult than expected to open Tonga’s airport, said Mr. Veitch. The airport remains closed, with up to 200 metres of ash being cleared per day. 

The senior UN official noted that, whilst flights containing supplies will be able to enter Tonga once the airport re-opens, UN personnel are unlikely to be allowed in, as Tonga has strict COVID-19 policies: the country is one of the few in the world to remain free from the virus, and is very cautious about opening its borders.

 

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