Tonga’s January 2022 volcanic eruption: a quick guide

10 February 2022

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Dr Angela Clare
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

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.

Map showing major volcanoes of Tonga

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.

Authorities 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 livestock severely damaged.

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 to repair.

Ash pollution in drinking water raised immediate health concerns and ensuring 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 food security.

COVID-19 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 hours quarantine.

With the Tongan Government and community cautious about allowing relief workers into the country for fear of spreading the virus, aid 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 resources 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.

Tropical 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.

Response efforts

Within days international donors had pledged aid and mobilised assistance in response to the disaster. Australia and New Zealand have been at the fore of the response, sending surveillance aircraft on 17 January to assess the damage and inform response options.  

The 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.

After isolating 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 weather conditions.

To date the Australian Government has pledged a total of $3 million in humanitarian aid to Tonga and delivered 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 year.

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 private sector.

In other donor responses:

Tonga snapshot

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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