South Seas paradise of Tonga transformed into a landscape of rubble

Status: 01/24/2022 2:25 p.m

The island nation of Tonga has a high risk of natural disasters. This time, the aftermath of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption is particularly severe – the entire ecosystem could be affected.

By Lena Bodewein, ARD Studio Shanghai

Dead fish thrown ashore, rows of coconut trees uprooted, heaps of boulders from the sea, cars washed away, roofs torn off, roads destroyed – the waves of the tsunami have devastated the west coasts of the islands of Tonga. This is shown by pictures and eyewitnesses report this to various media. In addition, everything is covered by volcanic ash – what people normally dream of as a South Seas paradise is a large, gray landscape of rubble.

Lena Bodewein
ARD-Studio Singapore

“People of Tonga are brave and resilient”

But: “The people of Tonga are brave and resilient,” says Lord Fatafehi ​​Fakafanua, a Tongan parliamentarian. He represents the islands around Ha’apai, in close proximity to the volcano, which have been hit particularly hard.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted nine days ago, probably the most violent volcanic eruption in the world for 30 years. Residents report that in the weeks before the volcano smelled of sulfur, there were smaller eruptions.

High risk of natural disasters

“The current eruptive period started in December, and initially it resembled what had been happening at the volcano in previous years,” says geologist Marco Brenna of New Zealand’s University of Otago. “And only then did the magnitude of the eruption increase so much. It’s not yet clear whether it was because something inside the volcano was changing, the magma supply, or because of a partial collapse near the surface, near the summit.”

The island state of Tonga lies in the area of ​​the Pacific Ring of Fire, a region that is particularly active in terms of plate tectonics. Natural disasters occur again and again in the South Seas kingdom. In the World Risk Report 2021, the island state ranks third among the countries with the highest probability that an extreme natural event will lead to a disaster. Earthquakes and hurricanes repeatedly hit the country.

“Maybe the whole ecosystem is affected”

This time the natural disaster has had a particularly long aftermath. “This blanket of ash is everywhere, it has health consequences, it affects agriculture, farmers are trying to save their crops, livestock is affected, maybe the entire ecosystem, fish farms,” ​​says Fatafehi ​​Fakafanua.

Especially drinking water is missing. Because the 105,000 inhabitants of Tonga are usually dependent on rainwater, which they collect in containers. But much of it is contaminated by the ash. The first aid shipments from Australia and New Zealand, Japan and China have brought drinking water, desalination plants, temporary shelters, generators and tools to remove the volcanic ash by ship and plane.

Fear of Covid-19

The relief supplies will be handed over contactless – for fear of Covid-19. “Humanitarian aid is also coming into the country without contact. There are protocols for this at the landing stages and at the airport. That’s how it’s always been with commercial deliveries. We had two years to practice, it will also work for humanitarian aid.”

Concern about Covid-19 is great; medical care is not only restricted by the tsunami and volcanic eruption. An outbreak of the pandemic would be a disaster – another.

Kiribati im Corona-Lockdown

The Pacific state of Kiribati, 2800 kilometers from Tonga, has now had to impose a lockdown for the first time in the pandemic. The country is located in the middle of the Pacific – 5000 kilometers from Australia. Like Tonga, it had been in isolation for almost two years.

Last week, the country welcomed the first flight from Fiji in ten months. All 54 passengers were fully vaccinated and had previously given negative Covid tests three times – but 36 of them are now positive. Employees of the quarantine unit are now also infected, as are outsiders.

What Kiribati, one of the poorest countries in the world with miserable medical care, wanted to avoid all along has happened. And that’s exactly what Tonga wants to protect itself against.

Island state of Tonga after the volcanic eruption – how is the help going?

Lena Bodewein, ARD Singapore, 24.1.2022 2:22 p.m

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