Satellite view of the eruption of an underwater volcano off Tonga on 15 Jan.  2022. Satellite view of the eruption of an underwater volcano off Tonga on 15 Jan. 2022. 

Caritas Australia appeals for funds for Tonga

After a massive underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga on 15 Jan. and a subsequent tsunami, Caritas Australia is collecting funds to reach out to affected communities in the Polynesian kingdom.

By Robin Gomes

“Tonga is coated in a thick blanket of ash after the eruption of undersea volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai on January 15, which triggered tsunamis across the region, destroyed telecommunications and contaminated water supplies in the small Pacific Island nation,” Caritas Australia said on Tuesday. 

The blast from the volcano could be heard from as far as Alaska. Caritas Australia noted that coastal communities in Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu have been impacted by tsunami waves, along with communities as far afield as Australia, Japan and the Americas. 

With its sole undersea communications cable badly damaged, it is feared Tonga could spend days, or even weeks, cut off from the rest of the world because of difficulties in repairing it.

Tonga is home to more than 104,000 people, 70 per cent of whom live on the main island, Tongatapu.  Its small outer islands suffered extensive damage from the volcanic eruption.  The Tongan government has said that "immediate assistance" is needed to deal with the fallout of the volcanic eruption.

Caritas response

According to Caritas Australia, “Volcanic ash and saltwater inundation from the tsunami waves have contaminated water supplies, so many communities will be left without clean water.” “Tonga already struggles with clean water supplies because it relies on groundwater, so this will put communities in a really difficult position”, said Damaris Pfendt, Caritas Australia’s Pacific Humanitarian Coordinator.

Caritas Australia is trying to establish communications with its Tongan counterpart, to assess the situation on the ground and determine the most urgent needs.  From the few updates that have come through, Caritas Australia has come to know that the devastation is significant, especially in the outlying islands. “There is an urgent need for fresh water and shelter, especially for the communities on the coastline whose homes were damaged by the tsunami waves. Roads and bridges have also been damaged,” it said.

Pfendt pointed out that Caritas Tonga has already emergency supplies in place in the capital Nuku'alofa and Ha’apai, so they will be able to respond quickly to immediate needs.   “However, it’s crucial that we step up and support our neighbours in Tonga, as they recover from this devastating volcanic eruption,” she said.  Caritas Australia is thus currently raising funds to support communities impacted by the eruption and tsunami in the Polynesian country.

In a Twitter post, Caritas Australia appreciated the Australian government's intent on "supporting the people of Tonga in this time of crisis".

Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand has also offered an immediate Solidarity Grant to Caritas Tonga and is also receiving donations, through its Pacific Relief Fund, to help with the aftermath of the volcanic eruption there.  "Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tonga and especially with our partners and the communities with which we have been working for many years," Caritas New Zealand said.

First images of disaster

The first images that began to emerge on Tuesday provided a vague picture of the extent of the destruction, especially in the outer islands.  A Tongan diplomat said images taken by New Zealand Defence Force planes showed "alarming" scenes of an entire village destroyed on Mango island and buildings missing on nearby Atata island.  “Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case," Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, told Reuters.

In its first update since the disaster, Tonga's government on Tuesday confirmed 3 deaths.  In a statement, the prime minister’s office said that in addition to a  British national, a 65-year old woman on Mango Island and a 49-year old man on Nomuka Island were killed.  

The government said that the Tongan navy was sending health teams and water, food and tents to the low-lying Ha'apai islands.

United Nations

The United Nations had earlier reported a distress signal was detected in Ha'apai, where Mango is located. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the Tongan navy reported the area was hit by waves estimated to be 5-10 metres.   

Atata and Mango are between about 50 and 70 km from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean.  Atata has a population of about 100 people and Mango around 50 people.

Airport under thick ash

Aerial images provided to Tonga by New Zealand and Australia showed a thick layer of ash blanketed the islands.  The archipelago's main airport, Fua’amotu International Airport, was not damaged but the ash prevented full operations, hampering international relief efforts. The U.N. humanitarian office said Tongan officials had said that clearing the runway would take days, as it was being done manually, with the earliest opening Wednesday.

 “While we do not have a clear picture of the humanitarian needs due to communication challenges,” OCHA said, “Tongan authorities have called for immediate assistance, in particular for fresh water and food, as assessments continue.” 

Governments and aid agencies on alert

The governments of New Zealand and Australia have announced emergency funding for the immediate aid response. Australia is also preparing a vessel to sail to Tonga with relief supplies.  

The Red Cross has offered assistance and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community [an international development organization comprising 22 Pacific island countries and territories] – is providing technical support on the impact of the volcano and its ashfall. The Pacific Humanitarian Team members are working with partners on the ground and national counterparts. 

UN agencies working in Tonga are providing support, and the logistics cluster, led by WFP, is working to bring in relief supplies and possibly surge staff – in close coordination with relevant authorities in Tonga, humanitarian partners and donor countries.  

OCHA is providing communication support to Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office, which is leading the assessments and the government response – in close cooperation with the Tonga Red Cross Society.

18 January 2022, 13:28