A general view from a New Zealand Defence Force P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight shows heavy ash fall over Nomuka in Tonga A general view from a New Zealand Defence Force P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight shows heavy ash fall over Nomuka in Tonga 

Tonga tsunami: Efforts to provide relief impeded by communications breakdown

Following a volcano eruption that triggered a tsunami on the Pacific island of Tonga, communications have been down everywhere, making assessments more difficult, according to a representative of Caritas Australia.

By Lydia O’Kane

Four days on from a volcano eruption that triggered a tsunami that could be heard in Alaska, experts are continuing to assess the damage on the Pacific island nation of Tonga.

According to the country's government, at least three people died in the disaster, and there are concerns over the fate of residents on some of the smaller islands where many homes were destroyed.

One of the biggest difficulties facing relief agencies is the lack of communications after an undersea cable was destroyed following the volcano, which will take some time to fix.

But perhaps the greatest problem on Tonga's main island of Tongatapu is the ash that has contaminated the rainwater that people rely on to drink.

Listen to the interview

Relief efforts

A major emergency operation is now underway, with New Zealand’s military preparing to send fresh water and other much-needed supplies.

Caritas Australia is currently working to restore communications with its local partner, Caritas Tonga, to assess the situation on the ground and determine the most urgent needs. 

Speaking with Vatican Radio, Damaris Pfendt, Caritas Australia’s Pacific Humanitarian Coordinator, said they are currently conducting assessments but are facing difficulties due to the lack of communication.

“All communication has broken down, literally, any internet, any phone communication… but the biggest impact is actually the ashfall.”

She underlined that one of the impacts of the tsunami has been the lack of water available for drinking and for crops. There is also concern for some of the outer islands where there has been a lack of information on the situation on the ground.

The information that Caritas Australia has received from one of these islands is that all of the houses were destroyed. On another island, at least fifty homes were swept away.

Another area that has been severely impacted by this disaster is agriculture and fisheries. Ms Pfendt pointed out that there is “a really big concern around food insecurity" due to the disaster.

The displaced

In terms of displacement, the humanitarian coordinator said “there have been evacuations happening from the lower-lying islands into the main island.”

But she explained that the exact number of people who have been left homeless is difficult to establish due to the lack of communication.

Church response

In order to respond to this challenging situation, Caritas Australia is partnering with its neighbour, Caritas New Zealand, and Caritas Tonga.

Despite the lack of communication on Tonga, Ms Pfendt said supplies had already been pre-positioned in warehouses on the island, which include hygiene kits and purification tablets for water. She also underlined that water and shelter are the critical areas they are working on right now.

“In general, working with the Church network is really, really effective and good because they are really at the grassroots level, so they’re working through their dioceses and parishes, and it’s a really effective strategy, especially for those remote islands. The churches are there, they’re right on the ground… and so having these connections is actually very effective and a really good strategy to really bring relief to where it’s needed,” Ms Pfendt said.

During the General Audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the people of the Pacific nation, praying that God would relieve their suffering. 

Caritas Australia is currently raising funds to support communities impacted by the eruption and tsunami in Tonga. 

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19 January 2022, 13:52