'Water is an immediate need': Tonga assesses damage after volcanic eruption, COVID-19 threat looms

Updated: Jan 17, 2022, 06:18 PM(IST)

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano triggered a tsunami on the shores of Tonga and cut off phone and internet lines for the entire island.

International communication has been severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable, which could take more than a week to restore, and Australia and New Zealand were assisting with satellite calls, he said.

Telephone networks in Tonga have been restored but ash was posing a major health concern, contaminating drinking water.

Underwater volcano off Tonga

An underwater volcano off Tonga erupted on Saturday (January 15), triggering a tsunami on the shores of Tonga and cutting off phone and internet lines for the entire island. 

Tsunami warnings, advisories and evacuation orders were issued on the shores of Tonga as well as several South Pacific islands. The warnings were lifted subsequently. 

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet.


Satellite image shows massive eruption

The image, captured by Japanese weather satellite Himawari 8, showed a massive plume of volcanic ash bursting in the atmosphere during the eruption.

Himawari 8 detected ash plumes measuring 5-20 km (3-12 miles) following the explosion, officials said.


Smoke ash and a near-total blackout

The tsunami threat from a powerful Tonga volcano eruption has passed, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said on Sunday (January 16), after powerful waves flooded coastlines from Japan to the United States.

Tonga was reportedly covered in ash and facing a near-total blackout.

Tonga's capital is just 65km south of where the eruption took place.  


Reports of 'significant damage'

This Image by Planet SkySat shows a plume of smoke rising from the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai days before its eruption on January 15.

Australia's Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said initial reports suggested no mass casualties from Saturday's eruption and tsunami but Australian police had visited beaches and reported significant damage with "houses thrown around".

"We know there is some significant damage, and know there is significant damage to resorts," he said in an interview with an Australian radio station, adding that Tonga's airport appeared to be in relatively good condition.


Impact on Fiji, New Zealand, US and Japan

The massive explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano was the latest in a series of eruptions. It has erupted regularly over the past few decades but the impact of Saturday's eruption was felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan.

Two people drowned off a beach in Northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami. 


'Water is an immediate need'

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday (January 17) to assess damage in tsunami-hit Tonga, handout footage from both countries' defence forces showed.

The Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon Aircraft was sent to assess damage to crucial infrastructures such as power lines and roads, while the Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K Orion was deployed to conduct reconnaissance.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern said, "We know water is an immediate need. The Hercules will be able - we hope - to take off today in order to meet that need much more quickly than our navy vessels will be able to reach the islands."


'Tsunami of COVID-19?'

Tonga's deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu'ihalangingie, asked for patience as Tonga's government decides its priorities for aid.

Tonga is concerned about the risk of aid deliveries spreading COVID-19 to the island, which is COVID-free.

"We don't want to bring in another wave - a tsunami of COVID-19," he told Reuters by telephone.

"When people see such a huge explosion they want to help," he said, but added Tonga diplomats were also concerned by some private fundraising efforts and urged the public to wait until a disaster relief fund was announced.

Any aid sent to Tonga would need to be quarantined, and it was likely no foreign personnel would be allowed to disembark aircraft, he said.


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