The first aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies arrived in Tonga on Thursday, five days after the South Pacific island nation was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami that devastated communities and spoilt most of its drinking water.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules landed at Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport, a defence spokesperson said, after a blanket of volcanic ash was cleared off the runway.
An Australian Globemaster military transport aircraft also landed.
“The C-17A flight today was made possible thanks to the tireless efforts of Tongan authorities who have worked to clear a thick layer of volcanic ash from the runway,” Australian defence minister Peter Dutton said.
Dutton said the aircraft was loaded with supplies including water desalination equipment, shelter, kitchens, and a sweeper to help remove ash from the airport. A second Australian aircraft was due to make the flight on Thursday.
The New Zealand aircraft was carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta said.
The delivery of the supplies brought in by both aircraft was contactless to ensure Tonga remains free of the coronavirus.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday killed at least three people, sent tsunami waves rolling across the archipelago, damaging villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.
Rachael Moore, Australia’s high commissioner to Tonga, said the loss of property had been “catastrophic”.
“Along the western beaches there is a moonscape where once beautiful resorts and many, many homes stood,” Moore told Australian radio, adding that drinking water was “an extremely high priority”.
Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, though restoring full internet services was likely to take a month or more, according to the owner of the archipelago’s sole subsea communications cable.
Speaking to Reuters from the capital, Nuku’alofa, journalist Marian Kupu said Tongans were cleaning up all the dust from the volcanic eruption but feared they may run out of drinking water.
“Each home has their own tanks of water supply but most of them are filled with dust so it’s not safe for drinking,” Kupu said.
New Zealand is sending two ships, one of which is carrying 250,000l of water and desalination equipment that will be able to produce 70,000l a day.
This ship is due to arrive on Friday, while the other is due in on Thursday to check shipping channels and wharf approaches at Tonga’s port.
An Australian ship is due to set sail on Friday.
Tongans abroad were frantically calling families back home to ensure they are safe.
“It was very relieving to hear from them,” said Fatafehi Fakafanua, the speaker of Tonga’s legislative assembly, who was in New Zealand when the disaster struck, after making contact with his family.
“They are fine … the government has advised them to drink bottled water, to cover up when they are outside and also wear masks because of the ash.”
The UN said about 84,000 people — more than 80% of the population — has been badly affected by the disaster with safe water being “the biggest life-saving issue”, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted about 65km from the Tongan capital with a blast heard 2,300km away in New Zealand.
Waves reaching up to 15m hit the outer Ha’apai island group, destroying all the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, where 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged, the prime minister’s office said.
“It’s going to be a long, long, long road to recovery,” Fakafanua said.
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