‘Our resources on the ground aren’t enough’, says UN Tonga official

Workers load the HMAS Adelaide with supplies for Tonga
Workers load the HMAS Adelaide with emergency supplies dedicated to Tonga in response to the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai undersea volcano. Image: Sarah Shotunde/UNICEF

UN News

As news coverage of the Hunga volcano eruption and tsunami that hit Tonga starts to fade, the United Nations Coordination Specialist in the country has a message to the outside world:

Tonga’s people are going to need sustained support responding to a disaster of this scale.

“The resources that we have on the ground are not enough”, Sione Hufanga said in an interview with UN News.

“We ought to always look at the situation and ask, have we done enough, for this very small country, isolated in the Pacific islands?”

The underwater volcano eruption of a week ago, is believed to be the largest volcanic event to happen for 30 years.

The huge, 20 km high mushroom cloud of smoke and ash, and the tsunami that followed, affected 84,000 people, more than 80 percent of the population of the South Pacific country.

In the last few days, the kingdom has started receiving ships with humanitarian aid, and, with the runway now cleared of thick volcanic ash, the international airport is now open to flights with assistance.

‘Overwhelmed with the magnitude’
Despite the positive signs of recovery, Hufanga warned that “the people of Tonga are still overwhelmed with the magnitude of the disaster”.

Only three people — so far — have lost their lives, but the specialist believes that number provides a somewhat misleading sense of security.

“Sometimes you can feel that it’s not as bad as it is, based on the fatalities, but that number represents the resilience of the Tongan community in such a disaster,” he said.

Speaking by cellphone, with most communications with the outside world still suspended, he explained that “most of the focus now is to serve the people who have been severely affected and need help with their essential needs in the next few days”.

The UN is working with the government to finalise a needs assessment, that should be completed next week and will guide the immediate response and relief efforts.

“Water, sanitation, hygiene, schools, are among the things that will allow life to return to normal as soon as possible, but there is still a lot of ash that needs to be removed from those premises,” Hufanga said.

UN agencies are in the field distributing dignity kits to the most affected people, food support, and trying to restart the agricultural sector.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is working with the Minister of Health providing medical teams to Ha’apai, one of the most affected islands, and other agencies, like the World Food Programme (WFP), are cooperating to help restore communication services.

Long-term impacts
For the UN specialist, the complete magnitude of the problems is still unknown. He points to damages to the agricultural sector or the marine resources as examples.

Around 60 to 70 percent of livestock-rearing households have seen their animals perish, grazing land damaged, or water supplies contaminated.

And, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the agricultural sector represents over 65 percent of the country exports.

Fisheries have been significantly affected as well. The government has advised against fishing amid the ongoing contamination — or consuming fish.

“These are mid to long-term impacts that are yet to be understood,” Hufanga said.

Because of this, the specialist believes Tongans might have to rely on imported food for some time, something they have “never experienced before”.

“Tonga never expected that such a disaster could put us in this very, very difficult situation”, he says.

Trucks ready to leave Brisbane with supplies for Tonga
Trucks ready to leave Brisbane bringing aid and emergency supplies for Tonga. Image: Sarah Shotunde/UNICEF
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