World rushes aid to tsunami-hit Tonga as drinking water, food runs short

Maritime sustainment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa leaving Auckland for Tonga on Jan 18, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Chinook helicopters being loaded onto the HMAS Adelaide in Brisbane before the ship departs for relief efforts in Tonga, on Jan 19, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (REUTERS) - More ships and aircraft carrying aid are due to arrive in Tonga in coming days as the international community responds to calls for urgent assistance from the Pacific island nation following a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The first flights from Australia and New Zealand landed in Tonga on Thursday (Jan 20) with much-needed supplies of water for sanitation and hygiene as well as shelter, communication equipment and power generators.

A New Zealand maritime sustainment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa carrying 250,000 litres of water and able to produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant, is expected to arrive in Tonga on Friday.

One Australian aid flight was turned around mid-flight on Thursday after being notified of a positive Covid-19 case onboard, an Australian defence official said.

All crew had returned negative rapid antigen tests before departure, but PCR tests later showed the positive result. The supplies were moved to another flight that took off on Friday.

Tonga is Covid-free and has a strict border control policy. It is requiring contactless delivery of aid.

More help is on the way with HMAS Adelaide en route from Brisbane and due in Tonga next week, the Australian High Commission in Tonga said on Facebook.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted with a deafening explosion last Saturday, triggering tsunamis that destroyed villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.

Three people have been reported killed, authorities said.

Ash has blanketed the archipelago and spoiled much of its drinking water.

United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said in a briefing that Tonga has asked for urgent assistance and the agency is in close contact with the authorities.

"Assessment teams have reached most parts of the country, including remote and isolated islands," Mr Dujarric said.

"We remain seriously concerned about access to safe water for 50,000 people throughout the country. Water quality testing continues, and most people are relying on bottled water," he said.

Some 60,000 people have been affected by damage to crops, livestock, and fisheries due to ashfall, saltwater intrusion and the potential for acid rain, Mr Dujarric said.

There are also reports of fuel shortages, he added.

London-based charity Save The Children will join the international aid response by setting up temporary learning facilities and child-friendly spaces to support children impacted by the recent events, using local staff already on the ground to mitigate any Covid-19 risks. 

“We are incredibly concerned about the mental health of children in Tonga," said Ms Shairana Ali, CEO of Save the Children Fiji. "This sort of event will obviously lead to a lot of distress and anxiety, and there is absolutely a need for psychosocial support and counselling for children." 

The NGO will also provide school bags, hygiene kits and cash assistance to affected families. At least 28,000 children are estimated to have been affected. 

The damage to school infrastructure and learning resources, as well as the use of schools as evacuation centres, may delay the start of the 2022 school year initially planned for Jan 31, the charity said. 




Japan SDF personnel loading relief supplies onto a C-130 Hercules for relief efforts in Tonga, at Komaki Air Base in Japan on Jan 20, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS/KYODO

Australia's foreign minister Marise Payne said on Friday cash donations to Tonga for immediate humanitarian supplies - Australia has donated US$1 million (S$1.35 million) - would need to be followed with more substantial support for rebuilding.

"The impact of this volcanic eruption and the subsequent tsunami and the damage the inundation is causing will be an ongoing challenge for Tonga, particularly in relation to infrastructure," she told Australian radio, adding that New Zealand and Fiji were also working closely with Tonga.

Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, although restoring full Internet services is likely to take a month or more.

Tongans have turned to social media to post images of the destruction by the tsunami and give accounts of their shock after the massive explosion.

Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre has 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 II.

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