Desperate Tongans await critical water supplies
New Zealand sends two navy vessels with drinking water after local sources were contaminated by volcanic ash after Saturday’s eruption and seawater from the subsequent tsunami
Two New Zealand navy vessels will arrive in Tonga on Friday carrying critical water supplies for the Pacific island nation reeling from a undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami and largely cut off from the rest of the world.
Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands have been destroyed and at least three people were killed after Saturday’s huge eruption triggered a tsunami causing what the government has called an unprecedented disaster.
With its airport closed after an undersea telecommunications cable was severed, information on the scale of the devastation has mostly come 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 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, the Pacific head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a blast heard 2,300km 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 equivalent to five to 10 megatons of TNT, an explosive force more than 500 times the nuclear bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War 2.
New Zealand’s foreign ministry said Tonga had approved the arrival of HMNZS Aotearoa and the HMNZS Wellington in the Covid-free nation, where concerns about a potential coronavirus outbreak are likely to complicate relief efforts.
Simon Griffiths, captain of the Aotearoa, said his ship was carrying 250,000 litres of water, and had the capacity to produce another 70,000l 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.
Other countries and agencies including the UN are also drafting plans to help.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said it would send aid, including water and food, when the archipelago’s main Fua’amotu International Airport reopens. It was not damaged but was covered in ash, which has to be cleared by hand.
“We thought that it would be operational yesterday, but it hasn’t been fully cleared yet because more ash has been falling,” Fiji-based UN co-ordinator Jonathan Veitch said on Wednesday.
Neighbouring Fiji will send defence engineers on Australia’s HMAS Adelaide, which is due to set sail from Brisbane for Tonga on Friday, a Fiji military spokesperson said.
Waves up to 15 metres smashed into the outer Ha’apai island group, destroying all of the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, according to the prime minister’s office.
On the west coast of Tongatapu, residents were moved to evacuation centres after 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.
New Zealand said power has now been restored, and cleanup and damage assessments were continuing and Tongan authorities were distributing relief supplies.
Australia and New Zealand have promised immediate financial assistance. The US Agency for International Development approved $100,000 in immediate assistance to support people affected by the disaster.
The Asian Development Bank is in talks with Tonga about declaring a state of emergency to draw on a $10m disaster funding facility, senior bank official Emma Veve said.
Tonga is still largely offline after the volcano severed the sole undersea fibre-optics communication cable.
International mobile phone network provider Digicel has set up an interim system on Tongatapu using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish, the New Zealand foreign ministry said.
That would allow a 2G connection to be established but the connection is patchy and amounts to about 10% of usual capacity,
US cable company SubCom said it will take at least four weeks for the cable to be repaired.
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 with grey ash.
Aid agencies, including the UN, are preparing to send relief flights to Tonga but without personnel who disembark to avoid introducing the coronavirus, Veitch said.
Tonga is one of the few countries that is Covid free and an outbreak there would disastrous, he said.
“They’ve been very cautious about opening their borders like many Pacific islands, and that’s because of the history of disease outbreaks in the Pacific which has wiped out societies here,” Veitch said.
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