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  • Writer's pictureB.M. Allsopp

After the eruption: Tonga recovers

Tonga's volcanic eruption
Satellite image of the volcanic plume (Source UNICEF)

On 15th January I had just hit the 'Publish" button on my monthly post when I checked on the news. While I'd been working on my post, the undersea Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano in Tonga erupted with tremendous force, shooting ash 30 kilometres into the stratosphere. People in Fiji heard the explosion 800 kilometres (500 miles) away. Volcanic ash smothered the land, sea and water sources.

Damage from the fallout and the subsequent tsunami flooding devastated the capital Nuku'alofa and many villages on the main island of Tongatapu and more remote islands too. Three people died and many suffered injury. The submarine communication cable between Fiji and Tonga was severed, cutting Tonga off from the world. This kept vulcanologists guessing about the precise nature of the eruption and the probability of more occurring. To learn more about their fascinating investigation, read here.

For today I'll focus on the relief efforts and what has been achieved to date.

Challenges for relief efforts

Damage to Tonga by eruption and tsunami Jan 2022
Rain has washed the few roofs left. (Source ADF)
1. Isolation

Tonga and her South Pacific neighbours are used to coping with the problems created by distance - they're resourceful, self-sufficient and stoical. But the cut to communications has been difficult to work around, despite limited satellite facilities set up within a week of the eruption. The density of ash in the air and on the ground not only stopped aircraft landing, but also ruled out reconnaissance fly-overs to assess the damage for days.

2. Water and food

With all fresh water sources polluted and very limited supplies of imported bottled water, drinkable water was the most urgent need. As soon as aircraft could safely land, emergency supplies of water were delivered. Crops in many areas were wiped out by ash and also flooding. The loss in the agricultural sector is now estimated at US$ 17 million. This has made Tonga much more dependent on imported food so relief food supplies in large quantities were the next priority. However, it takes time to provision a naval ship in Australia or New Zealand and sail to Tonga. Nevertheless, this was done by the end of January.

3. Covid-19

Delivering aid during the pandemic clearly presents a risk of transmitting the virus. This was perhaps the greatest challenge for the Tongan government, whose measures had so far kept Tonga free of Covid-19. Although 87 per cent of adult Tongans were vaccinated, dwellings and medical facilities were damaged, leaving the population vulnerable after the disaster.

Although strict rules for quarantine and handling of goods are in force, the virus has entered Tonga and is spreading, There are 141 cases recorded to date, all of the Omicron strain. The pandemic has not only slowed delivery of aid, but has made Tongans suspicious that the supplies may transmit infection. Schools closed only a few days after opening at the beginning of February and 100,000 people remain locked down.

4. International aid competition

It could be argued that competition between aid donors can only benefit people hit by disaster. But there's a danger that people's most urgent needs are lost sight of when donors pursue their own strategic goals. The imminent arrival of two Chinese vessels from the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command has highlighted the battle for influence in the region.

HMAS Adelaide HMAS Supply
HMAS Adelaide replenishing at sea during Operation Tonga Assist 2022 (Source ADF)

What's been done in 30 days

  • 15,000 people have been reached with medical help

  • Power has been restored.

  • Water sources, including groundwater, have been treated to control vectors and infection.

  • Rain helped with clearing the ash from the airport runway, which has been operational for two weeks.

  • Emergency food and water have been distributed.

  • 2,020 people in the worst-hit areas have been supplied with emergency shelter.

  • A cable-repair ship found both ends of the broken cable but the damage was severe.

  • Communication systems have gradually been fixed, but full capacity depends on the undersea cable repair, expected to be completed in another two weeks.

  • HMAS Adelaide arrived in late January, delivering 200 tons of emergency supplies. She will be joined by HMAS Canberra in a few days.

  • Fiji shipped 40 containers of emergency supplies which arrived on 3rd February. The donors included New Zealand, Fiji, UNICEF and others.

  • Aid has already been delivered or promised by the United Nations, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China and Tonga's fellow island nations.

Personally, I have faith in the ability of Tonga's neighbours to help the island kingdom restore their peaceful and productive life on the Pacific Ring of Fire. But it's going to take some time. I send the Tongan people my heartfelt best wishes.

You can find more about Fiji on my website, in the Fiji Gallery and Fiji Resources page. As ever, I'd welcome your comments and questions about this post.

with my best wishes for 2022,

Bernadette (B.M. Allsopp)


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