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Foreign Affairs, Defence and
On 15 January the undersea volcano, Hunga
Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, erupted in a massive
explosion, sending ash plumes 30
kilometres into the sky and triggering a series of tsunami waves across the
Tongan archipelago. The explosion, which occurred about 65 kilometres north of Tonga’s
capital, Nuku’alofa, cut
communications to the country for several days.
Source: Smithsonian Institution courtesy of the US Geological Survey
The eruption is thought
to be one
of the world’s largest in recent decades. Wave impacts were felt in Samoa,
Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the entire western seaboard of
the American continent (from Alaska to Chile).
Tonga’s low-lying Ha’apai islands were among
the worst affected parts of the country. The official death toll
is 3—two Tongan nationals and a British woman caught when the tsunami hit.
declared a state of emergency and have
estimated that 84% of Tonga’s total population of 106,000 have been
affected by the disaster. As at 28 January, 293 houses had been damaged and
1,525 people displaced, according to the UN’s
ReliefWeb. No Australians have been reported among the casualties to date.
Tonga appears to have avoided
the widespread devastation that many initially feared, thanks to a ‘well-functioning’ early warning
system and successful preparedness activities. Initial assessments are ongoing
but the impact on lives and livelihoods is expected to be significant,
with many properties
on some of Tonga’s smaller islands destroyed and agricultural crops and
The explosion caused power outages and severed
Tonga’s undersea communications cable, limiting information into and out of
the country. Power was quickly restored to the capital and limited
satellite connectivity established, but communications across the country remain
limited. The damage may take weeks
Ash pollution in drinking water raised immediate health concerns
clean water has been an urgent priority. Local volunteers were among the
first to distribute water supplies and
other essential supplies to reduce the threat of water-borne diseases such as cholera and
diarrhoea. Relief agencies reported that other
priorities included telecommunications, logistics capacity, non-food items
and support with further needs assessment, as assessment teams worked towards
the harder-to-reach areas. Key challenges included ash clearance and ensuring
has complicated aid delivery, with the Tongan Government requesting donors to
deliver supplies without any person-to-person contact to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The country has remained COVID-19 free for most of the pandemic—recording just
one case over the 2 years to February 2022—and has a strict border control
policy that requires all arrivals, including aid workers, to isolate for 3
weeks before entering the country, while cargo needs to complete 72
With the Tongan Government and community cautious
about allowing relief workers into the country for fear of spreading the
workers such as Josie Flint (Humanitarian Advisory Group) have suggested that
‘sending in large numbers of international surge personnel … where local
technical experts and partners have better contextual knowledge … is now
increasingly a thing of the past’. Meanwhile, a UN coordinator has claimed that
on the ground were not enough to meet the country’s needs, and one report
suggests that specialist personnel—including 51
defence force engineers and medics from Fiji—have been unable
to be deployed due to the COVID-19 border policies.
On 1 February Tonga recorded 2
cases of COVID-19 in workers handling incoming cargo shipments in the
capital Nuku’alofa, prompting a nationwide lockdown. A total
of 9 cases had been recorded by 6 February. None have yet been linked
to the delivery of aid.
Around 88% of Tonga’s population have received 2 doses
of the COVID-19 vaccine, according
to the ministry for health, with booster programs currently underway.
Longer term impacts
The 15 January eruption comes as Tonga struggles to overcome
the devastation caused by a series of severe cyclones in recent years and the
economic impact of COVID-19.
Although the country has so far escaped the health impacts
of COVID-19, strict international and domestic travel restrictions since March
2020 have hit Tonga’s tourism, retail and construction sectors hard. The World
Bank estimates that the economy will contract from 0.7% GDP growth in 2019
and 2020 to –3.2% in 2021.
Cyclone Harold in April 2020 and Tropical
Cyclone Gita in 2018 both caused extensive damage to Tonga’s housing,
infrastructure and agricultural production. Cyclone Gita was the country’s
largest natural disaster since 1982, causing
losses equivalent to 38% of GDP and affecting over 80% of the population.
Much of Tonga’s agricultural sector (including crops, livestock and fisheries) has once
again been severely
damaged by the inundation of salt
water and volcanic ash. ReliefWeb
estimates that 12,000 households
have been affected, with those reliant
on subsistence crops for their livelihoods among the hardest hit: about 60–70% of livestock-rearing households either lost livestock, or experienced damage to
grazing land or contamination of water supplies. Around 85%
of all Tongan households rely on subsistence agriculture for food and income.
While the magnitude of the damage is still unknown, the country may depend on imported
food for some time, according
to a UN specialist.
Within days international donors had pledged aid and
mobilised assistance in response to the disaster. Australia
Zealand have been at the fore of the response, sending surveillance
aircraft on 17 January to assess the
damage and inform response options.
communications outage and thick ash on the main airport runway hampered initial
aid delivery, but the airport was declared operational from 20 January after days of concerted efforts
by volunteers and rescue teams.
The first international flights arrived on 20 January carrying water and hygiene
supplies, food, shelter materials, communication equipment, power generators
and equipment to clear the airport runway, and medical equipment.
Existing emergency supplies held by the Australian
Government and non-government
organisations (NGOs) in Tonga
were released for distribution to the most affected communities. The Australian
Red Cross was among the Australian NGOs to provide assistance alongside
local NGOs, including the Tongan Red Cross.
COVID-19 disrupted some Australian aid deliveries. An
ADF flight was forced to return to base on 21 January due to a COVID-19
case on board, but its cargo was delivered
on a subsequent flight. HMAS Adelaide, the Australian navy’s largest ship, left
Brisbane on 21 January with humanitarian and medical supplies, personnel,
engineering equipment and helicopters to support logistics and distribution. Its
arrival in Tonga was thrown into doubt after 23 COVID-19 cases were recorded on
board, but the ship was permitted
to dock on 26 January and unload its supplies in line with the country’s
contactless delivery policy.
on board the HMAS Adelaide, an advance team of 30 ADF personnel disembarked on 4 February to begin reconnaissance work on Tonga’s
Atata Island before being joined by
a larger contingent of ADF personnel who will start clearing debris and
repairing infrastructure. The mission has been hampered not only by COVID-19
protocols but by a power
outage on the HMAS Adelaide and poor
To date the Australian Government has pledged a total of $3 million in humanitarian
more than 40 tonnes of emergency relief supplies. Prior to the disaster the
Government estimated that it would provide $35.6 million
as part of its ongoing aid program to Tonga over the current financial
Australia and New Zealand have coordinated their response with
France under the FRANZ Arrangement, a 1992 agreement which commits the 3 countries
to coordinate disaster reconnaissance and relief assistance in the Pacific when
requested by partner countries. The ADF has also established the Humanitarian
and Disaster Relief (HADR) International Coordination Cell to streamline the
delivery of emergency supplies and capabilities to Tonga. The new cell brings
together defence personnel from Tonga, Fiji, Japan, France, New Zealand,
Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The Government of Tonga is coordinating
humanitarian efforts on the ground with the help of UN agencies. The World
Food Programme (WFP) has established a working
group to coordinate supporting governments, humanitarian agencies and the
In other donor responses:
The Kingdom of Tonga consists of 176 coral and volcanic islands, of which 36 are inhabited. The population is about 106,000, with around 70% of people living on the main island of Tongatapu. The islands are divided into four main groups—Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Vava’u and the Niuas. The capital Nuku’alofa is located on the main island of Tongatapu.
Tonga has a small but open economy reliant on remittances (equivalent to 39% of GDP in 2020), tourism, agriculture and foreign aid. Agriculture is the leading productive sector and accounts for around 18% of total GDP and over 65% of exports. The sector remains underdeveloped however: approximately 85% of all households rely on subsistence agriculture (including forestry and fisheries) for food and income, with only about 5% of farms that are commercial. Extreme poverty is rare, but an estimated 25% of the population lack access to cash for basic goods.
Like other small Pacific island states, Tonga is particularly vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks. The World Bank argues that the likelihood of natural disasters increasing in Tonga due to future climate events ‘would bring more serious and greater economic losses’.
Tonga traditionally records one of the highest rates of participation in regional seasonal worker schemes: in 2018 an estimated 13% of the population aged 20–45 emigrated to work in Australia and New Zealand. Net remittances have largely remained resilient over 2020 and 2021, despite the impacts of COVID-19.
Tonga has been at the centre of major powers’ competition for influence in the region. The country has one of the highest levels of debt to China in the South Pacific, owing around two-thirds of its external debt to China’s Export-Import Bank, largely based on loans to rebuild after the 2006 riots. The World Bank ranks Tonga at high risk of external debt distress. Jonathon Pryke (Lowy) suggests that ‘Tongan officials are much wiser now in what support they will accept from China than in 2006, as repayments on that debt continue to be pushed off but will be monumentally costly for the government when they finally do come due’.
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