Tonga, Asia Pacific | Volcano and Tsunami - Emergency Appeal №: MDRTO002



On 15 January 2022, at 17:20 local time, a violent eruption of historic proportion occurred at the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'api underwater volcano, 65km north of Nuku'alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga.

The eruption lasted approximately eight minutes and could be heard and felt 700km away in Fiji. The volcano released a cloud of ash billowing more than 20km high, and sonic waves from the eruption were registered as far away as Scotland in the United Kingdom. In an unprecedented event in modern history, the volcanic eruption quickly caused a Pacific-wide tsunami, swamping coastlines and causing casualties and damage in Japan, Chile, and North America. In Peru, two deaths were recorded as a result of the tsunami. While the volcano had been erupting intermittently since 20 December 2021, causing earlier ashfall and a tsunami warning on 14 January, the magnitude of the eruption of 15 January was entirely unexpected.

In the aftermath of the eruption and tsunami, external communication with Tonga was completely cut off. Power outages, land-based infrastructure damage, and the severing of the under-water, fibre-optic cable running to Fiji and Australia, meant telecommunications was totally disabled. In addition, a thick ash cloud rendered satellite phones useless. For most of the population of Tonga, as of 21 January, these disruptions are ongoing, while for government and humanitarian agencies, the telecom blackout lasted several days. Current estimates put the re-establishment of regular communications at a month away. Humanitarian agencies across the region have been actively sharing information coming out of Tonga via two VSAT locations at the University of the South Pacific and the office of the Asian Development Bank. However, these issues have made accessing evolving data extremely difficult and hampered the response.

On 17 January, Surveillance flights carried out by the New Zealand Defence Force and the Australian Airforce identified the west coast of Tongatapu, the Ha'apai island group, and the west coast of 'Eua island group as areas most affected by the eruption and tsunami waves (refer to map). The flight recorded scenes comparable to a lunar landscape as ashfall and debris up to four cm thick blanketed the areas. Without exception, all Tongan's have been impacted by the airborne ash, with a percentage suffering breathing difficulties as a result.

Initial assessment data from Tongatapu also indicates that five communities have been identified as suffering major damage to households, especially those in coastal areas. In these areas, 31 houses have been destroyed, 72 severely damaged, 46 moderately damaged, and 23 have sustained some minor damage. People in 'Ahau, 'Atata, 'Eueiki, Kanokupolu, and Patangata also risk being displaced due to the impact and exposure (refer to map). On 'Eua island, two houses have been destroyed, 45 severely damaged, and 28 sustained moderate damage. Regarding water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), initial data suggests that approximately 50,000 people are affected, and access to drinking water remains a critical priority. Most people currently rely on dwindling supplies of bottled water. Saltwater inundation and power outages have also severely impacted the ability of population centres to access useable groundwater.

Ashfall and saltwater intrusion have also severely affected all agricultural sectors (crops, livestock, fisheries). Local agencies hold grave fears for ecosystem damage to coral reefs and other essential links in the health of fishery and tourism livelihoods. On the island of 'Eua, water and food stocks need urgent replenishment.

As soon as it was safe after the eruption, the Tongan Government sent a naval ship on a reconnaissance mission to outer islands in the Ha'api group, accompanied by Red Cross volunteers with essential supplies such as tents, drinking water and hygiene kits. The round trip to the islands usually takes a week from Tongatapu. The assessment team found devastating scenes of destruction, with all infrastructure and housing on three out of four islands completely destroyed. Fifty houses are destroyed in these areas, and drinking water is incredibly scarce. Households from smaller Islands are being evacuated to the larger Island of Namuka, which suffered less damage. While only three deaths have been officially recorded in Tonga, authorities anticipate this number could rise as better contact is established with the low-lying atolls.

On 18 January, the Prime Minister of Tonga declared a state of emergency effective from 16 January and international assistance was requested.

Tonga Red Cross Society (TRCS) has been instrumental in the fast-acting Tongan emergency coordination system. Local inter-cluster coordination groups immediately activated in the aftermath of the eruption and tsunami. Without communication or support from the international humanitarian system, TRCS and other local actors immediately evacuated the community to higher ground, established evacuation centres, gathered assessment teams, and began distributing essential non-food items and clean water provisions. The pre-positioned stocks TRCS had on hand have been essential for the hundreds of Tongans rendered homeless by tsunami inundation.

While efforts are focused on confirming damage, fixing communications, and launching the response, there remains a high possibility of further eruptions. Therefore, imminent preparedness actions are required to mitigate risks, and in-country capacities are strengthened to deal with potential successive eruptions, tsunami waves, and ashfall.

It is critical to note that this emergency is unfolding within the complex context of the global pandemic – a disaster that Tonga has, to date, been strategic enough to avoid due to a low-risk tolerance for exposure and some of the most stringent entry procedures in the world. Deliveries of aid to date have been achieved in a "contactless" process, and all aid items will be quarantined for disinfecting before distribution. It is as yet unknown if the Government of Tonga will allow any humanitarian personnel to enter the response.