Tonga: Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami – Jan 2022

Disaster description

A large eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha-apai underwater volcano in the evening of 15 January (at 17:26 local time) caused a tsunami and ash fall in Tonga (total pop. 105,000 people). The volcanic eruption has continued throughout the day with satellite imagery indicating a 5km wide plume of ash, steam and gas rising into the air 20km above the volcano. The ash plume was observed moving northeast over the islands of Ha’apai and is currently proceeding in a westerly direction away from Tonga. The eruption was one of the biggest in Tonga in the past 30 years. During the initial eight-minutes, it was so violent it could be heard as “loud thunder sounds” in Fiji, more than 800km away.

No additional eruptions were recorded since yesterday’s update. However, further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out. The ash cloud has slowly moved on in a north-westerly direction. Elsewhere in the Pacific (Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands) tsunami warnings have been lifted and no serious impact has been reported so far apart from some limited flooding [..] For Tonga, the tsunami of Saturday has caused yet to be detailed damage of buildings and infrastructure. Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, is covered with a two-centimetre-thick layer of volcanic ash and dust. However, the situation in the city is calm and stable and first clean-up efforts are being made. Nuku’alofa’s waterfront is seriously damaged with rocks and debris pushed inland by the tsunami. Overall, there appears to be significant infrastructural damage around Tongatapu, the main island. There had been no contact from the Ha’apai Group of islands with particular concern about two small low-lying islands – Mango and Fonoi. An active distress beacon had been detected from Mango.

An initial assessment from the Government of Tonga is that 100 houses were damaged and 50 destroyed in Tongatapu. No evacuation centres are open in Tongatapu, the people who were displaced (numbers not confirmed as of now) are staying with extended families. There are 89 people in evacuation centres in ‘Eua. Information from outer islands is still very scarce. In Ha’apai and Vava’u islands, communication lines remain down and concerns exist regarding damage to low lying island in this group. Three deaths have been recorded so far. Preliminary information from the Tongan Ministry of Agriculture indicates that the damage in the agricultural sector, and particularly of root crops, is less severe than initially feared. Due to thick ash cover is thicker than anticipated (between 5 and 10 cm) and will need more time to be cleared away. Planned relief flights (from Australia and New Zealand, for the time being) are on stand-by.

On 19 January, the Government of Tonga issued a State of Emergency. To date, there are three confirmed fatalities: one British national; a female from Mango Island; and a male from Nomuka Island. The government deployed two vessels with health teams and water, food and tents to the Ha’apai group where the islands of Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka have been impacted. All houses were destroyed on Mango island; only two houses remain on Fonoifua island and Nomuka island experienced extensive damage. According to the government, evacuation of Mango and Fonoifua islands to Nomuka island is underway. As for destruction in the capital Nuku’alofa, the government announced that 21 houses were completely damaged and 35 severely damaged in parts of the western side of Tongatapu including Kanokupolu. Residents had been evacuated to evacuation centers and supplied with relief items. In the central district, Kolomotu’a, eight houses were completely damaged and 20 severely. On the island of ‘Eua, two houses were completely damaged and 45 severely damaged. Water supplies have been seriously affected by volcanic ash. Government efforts have been made to ensure the continuity of the supply of safe drinking water. Tonga’s cluster system has been activated and is compiling reports on needs to be addressed.

On 19 January, the UN Resident Coordinator received a request from the Government of Tonga for urgent assistance in the wake of the volcanic eruption and the impact of the following tsunami and volcanic ash it generated. There are still serious concerns about access to safe water throughout the island nation, and concerns about the quality of groundwater in Tongatapu. Data suggest that some 50,000 people are affected and access to drinking water remains one of the highest priorities. The capital’s water supply is safe to drink but most people now rely on bottled water. It is estimated that some 12,000 households have been affected as all agricultural sectors (crops, livestock, fisheries) suffered substantially. Of particular concern is the effect of ashfall on crops along with saltwater intrusion and the potential of acid rain. It is further estimated that about 60 – 70 percent of livestock-rearing households either had livestock perished, experienced damage to grazing land, or have contaminated water supplies. As regards to Health, the hospital and the national pharmacy store in the capital are intact and fully functioning. There are some reports of damage to some health centres in Tongatapu, ‘Eua and Ha’apai. The main issue going forward is monitoring the risk of infectious diseases through surveillance and the actions underway by the WASH sector.

Ten days on from the violent eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano, the Government of Tonga continues to provide relief in the most-affected islands while assessing damage and needs. The Government of Tonga and humanitarian partners report that the entire population of Tonga (approx. 105,000 people) have been impacted and that about 84,000 people (some 84% of the population) have been directly affected. Initial assessment data indicate that about 240 houses have been damaged or destroyed. Some 100 houses have been damaged or destroyed on Tongatapu and 50 houses on ‘Eua alone. Tonga’s key challenges continue to be access to safe water, ash clearance and ensuring food security. The Pacific Humanitarian Team is scaling up the support based on the request from the Government and based on the assessment of needs.

Across Tongatapu 90% of power has been restored as work continues for full restoration. Efforts continue with the clearing of ash debris and coordinating relief distribution to affected communities. NEMO and humanitarian partners have established 16 water stations areas around Tongatapu. The areas of Popua, Patangata, Kanokupolu, and Ahau have been sprayed for vector control and decontamination and the ground water has been chlorinated for safety. 293 houses have been damaged or affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami according to government figures; the majority in Tongatapu. 1,525 people are still displaced according to initial findings by IOM.

On 1 February 2022, two COVID-19 cases were identified among port workers at the wharf in Nuku’alofa. A national lockdown was in effect as of 6pm 2 February. The lockdown may cause delays in the implementation of the humanitarian response carried out by NEMO and humanitarian partners on the ground. As of 31 January 2022, 2,390 people (2.4 per cent of the country’s population) or 465 households remain displaced three weeks after the disaster onset, according to IOM’s analysis. Of the 465 households, 54 per cent are in the main island Tongatapu, 31 per cent in Ha’apai Island group, and 15 per cent in ‘Eua; 60 per cent of the 465 households have their houses severely damaged or destroyed. The total number of displaced people rose by 57 per cent since the last reporting period with progress in field verification of the assessment data. The local transmission of COVID has also further complicated procedures and the lockdown is likely to lead to further delays. With the help of rainfall, ash residue along the airport runway have been largely cleared. There have been no further reports of ash disturbance during landing, take-off and taxi operations. Most humanitarian needs are being met, however, access to safe water remains the most pressing issue.

The spread of COVID had a negative impact on the aid delivery and further relief and recovery planning. The majority of schools – which only reopened on 31 January – have been closed again on 2 February 2022 due to the COVID lockdown. It is estimated that more than 32,000 children have been psychologically affected by the emergency. More than 30,000 people have been reached with WASH assistance so far. An estimated 15,000 persons have been reached with health assistance and some 10,000 persons with nutrition assistance. Emergency shelter and NFI assistance was distributed to 2,020 people in most-affected areas. The loss in the agricultural sector is estimated at US$ 17 million, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests. While communication systems have gradually been fixed, the full capacity will only be reached in a couple of weeks due to delays in repair of the undersea cable.

As of 8 February 2022, only three direct fatalities and one indirect fatality have been officially recorded in Tonga. The low level of fatalities partly reflects Tonga’s effective early warning systems, combined with previous experience of natural disasters in Tonga. Following the eruption, a small proportion of people suffered breathing difficulties and a few, mainly children, were hospitalized.