Water crisis looms for tsunami-hit Tonga; New Zealand help on the way

Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer
islands have been destroyed, with at least three deaths after Saturday’s huge
eruption triggered tsunami waves that rolled over the islands, causing what the
government calls an unprecedented disaster.

With the nation’s airport smothered by
volcanic ash and communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea
cable, information on the scale of devastation has come mostly 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, a Pacific official of the
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted
with a blast heard 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand and sent tsunami
waves across the Pacific Ocean.

James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s
Goddard Space Flight Center, said the force of the eruption was estimated to be
the equivalent of five to 10 megatons of TNT, or more than 500 times that of
the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima at
the end of World War Two.

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

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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 statement.


The Polynesian archipelago of 176 islands, 36
of them inhabited, has a population of about 105,000. Its Fua’amotu
International Airport was not damaged by the tsunami but it was covered in ash,
which has had to be cleared manually.

Aid flights from New Zealand and Australia
could begin on Thursday, a Tongan official said, depending on the clear-up.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said
two Hercules aircraft were ready to go with humanitarian supplies and
telecommunications equipment “as soon as conditions allow”.

“HMAS Adelaide is also preparing to
depart from Brisbane with water purification equipment and additional
humanitarian supplies,” Morrison said on Facebook after he spoke with
Tonga’s prime minister, Siaosi Sovaleni.

As well as emergency supplies, Australia and
New Zealand have promised immediate financial assistance. The US Agency for
International Development approved $100,000 in immediate assistance.

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 told Reuters.

Other countries and agencies, including the
United Nations, are drawing up plans to help. China will send help, including
water and food, when the airport opened, a spokesperson of its foreign ministry

Waves reaching up to 15 metres (49 feet) hit
the outer Ha’apia island group, destroying all 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.

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Residents of Tongatapu were being moved to
evacuation centres as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged.


New Zealand said power had been restored and
Tongan authorities were distributing relief supplies.

But the country is largely offline since the
volcano damaged the sole undersea fibre-optic communication cable and it would
probably take a month or more to fix, its owner said.

A specialist ship should embark from Port
Moresby on a repair voyage on the weekend, said Samiuela Fonua, chairman of
cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd, but with up to nine days sailing to collect
equipment in Samoa, he said it would be “lucky” if the job was done
in a month.

International mobile phone network provider Digicel
has established a 2G connection using a satellite dish, the New Zealand foreign
ministry said, but it is patchy and amounts to about 10% of usual capacity.

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 in grey ash.

The United Nations and aid agencies were
preparing relief flights to Tonga but without personnel who disembark, so to
avoid introducing the coronavirus, said Fiji-based UN co-ordinator Jonathan

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

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