Money services have been restored in Tonga’s capital but drinking water remained in short supply as the clean-up continued a week after a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.
- Tonga’s clean-up and aid distribution efforts are being frustrated by volcanic fallout, a communications blackout and strict coronavirus protocols
- Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja says Tongan authorities are doing an “extraordinary job” despite the circumstances
- Most of the country’s crops have been affected, leading experts to warn Tonga will be heavily reliant on food aid
Tonga’s government said drinking water was the priority and a national emergency team had already distributed 60,000 litres of water to residents.
A desalination plant on a New Zealand naval ship that arrived on Friday, capable of producing 70,000 litres a day, has started drawing seawater from Tonga’s harbour.
Residents who had lost homes on outlying islands when a tsunami reaching up to 15 metres crashed over the South Pacific archipelago would be relocated to the main island, Tongatapu, because of water and food shortages, the Tongan Prime Minister’s office said in a statement distributed to Tongan officials.
Volcanic fallout on the surface of the ocean was damaging boats and making marine transport between the islands challenging, and domestic flights were suspended, it said.
Australian Navy vessel the HMAS Adelaide was expected to arrive in Tonga on Wednesday with more bulk water and a 40-bed field hospital, Minister for International Development Zed Seselja said.
“Three flights have delivered humanitarian supplies to date and HMAS Adelaide is on her way,” he said.
“The Tongan government are doing an extraordinary job on the ground and the defence force and others are doing an extraordinary job in the clean-up and the coordination.
“Australia is coordinating response efforts with our international and Pacific partners including New Zealand, Fiji, Japan, France, the UK, and the United States.”
Ash fall and the tsunami had affected 84 per cent of the population and inter-island communications remain an “acute challenge” with limited satellite and radio links, Tongan authorities said.
COVID-19 protocols frustrate aid efforts
Burials were held earlier in the week for a Tongan man and a woman who had died when the tsunami hit the outlying Ha’apai islands. The official death toll is three.
A field hospital has been set up on Nomuka Island after the health centre there was swept away.
Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau, the coordinator for the project to rebuild Tonga’s parliament, said the restoration of international money transfer services for limited hours on Saturday was important for people to be able to buy essential goods.
“Tongans have demonstrated their resilience in this calamity and will get back on their feet,” he said, speaking to Reuters from Tongatapu.
More naval vessels from Australia, New Zealand and Britain are en-route to Tonga to deliver aid, as defence flights continue to arrive from Australia and New Zealand.
The Tongan government has implemented a strict COVID-19 policy that means people, including aid workers, cannot enter the country unless they have undergone a three-week isolation period.
Aid deliveries have been contactless and one Australian aircraft returned to Brisbane mid-flight on Thursday after being notified of a COVID-19 case among the crew.
Aid deliveries expected from Japan and China would also be contactless to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government said.
Mr Taumoefolau said Tonga had done a good job in avoiding a pandemic outbreak, recording only one case so far, and the border policy would not hinder aid from reaching communities.
“It is doable to get the aid in without compromising efforts on keeping COVID out,” he said.
Tonga to rely heavily on food aid, communications mostly blacked out
Sione Hufanga, the resident United Nations country coordination specialist, told Reuters that the agency is assisting the government in relief work as more people arrive at shelters and seek food and other supplies.
“Almost all crops in the country have been badly affected. Farmers have lost their homes and livelihood,” he told Reuters by phone from Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.
“The country will be heavily relying on aid food for some time.”
The agricultural sector contributed nearly 14 per cent of Tonga’s economic output in 2015/16 and represented over 65 per cent of exports.
The Tongan government said it is “deeply appreciative to the international community” for its assistance, which included $US8 million ($11 million) in funding from the World Bank and $US10 million from the Asia Development Bank.
Reliance, a repair ship due to reconnect the undersea cable that links Tonga to international telecoms networks, has left its mooring in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
It is expected in Tonga on January 30, according to Refinitiv data on shipping movements.
The vessel is expected to arrive “in the next few days” to repair the fibre-optic cable, the Tongan government said.