The World Health Organization is closely coordinating with other United Nations agencies and partners to support the response to the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga, including acting as a central channel of information in the face of continued telecommunications outages.
The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted at approximately 5:30pm local time on Jan. 15, spewing forth an ash plume said to be almost 20km high. The eruption, which was the largest Tonga—and potentially the world—has faced in 30 years, could be heard as far away as Australia and New Zealand and caused tsunami alerts to be issued across the Pacific.
The government of the Kingdom of Tonga reacted swiftly, including deploying a naval vessel to the Ha’api islands carrying the WHO-trained Tonga Emergency Medical Assistance Team to help treat any people who may have been injured. The government has advised the Tongan public to remain indoors, use masks if going out, and to drink bottled water to avoid consequences of the ashfall.
The United Nations has been working to support the government’s response since the moment the eruption occurred, with WHO’s Country Liaison Officer for Tonga, Dr. Yutaro Setoya, playing a critical role in channeling communication between UN agencies and the Tongan government, and between the UN and their staff in Tonga. With international phone lines and internet connectivity still down, Dr. Setoya’s satellite phone is one of the few ways to get information into and out of the country.
“Yuta has literally been standing outside from dawn until long into the night for the past few days to ensure that the phone can reach the satellite signal and he can pass along vital information,” said WHO’s Health Cluster Coordinator for the Pacific, Sean Casey. “All of us here at WHO, and in the broader UN family, are thinking of Tonga right now and doing what we can to support the government’s response efforts.”
Initial reports from inside Tonga, channeled via Dr. Setoya, are that buildings and infrastructure have been damaged—around 100 houses have been damaged and 50 completely destroyed just on the main island of Tongatapu. Two deaths have been reported to date. Many remain displaced, with 89 people taking shelter in evacuation centers on the island of ‘Eua and many more seeking shelter with relatives. Around 2cm of ash and dust has fallen on Tongatapu, raising concerns of air pollution and the potential contamination of food and water supplies. Thankfully, all health facilities on Tongatapu are fully functioning and cleanup efforts have been initiated.
However, information on the degree of destruction is still being gathered. The Ha’apai and Vava’u island groups, for example, remain out of contact with the capital. There are particular concerns about the smaller and low-lying islands of Mango and Fonoi in the Ha’apai group.
The UN’s emergency response is coordinated via the Pacific Humanitarian Team, which brings together United Nations agencies, the Red Cross movement, and international non-governmental organizations to organize the provision of in-country and remote support to the Tongan government’s response efforts. The PHT’s initial focus is on supporting the re-establishment of communications, finding ways to bring in relief supplies, and providing technical advice on a range of issues such as how to ensure the safety of ash-affected drinking water.
“We have very little way to contact the people of Tonga right now but, for all of their family and friends in other countries around the world, please know that your loved ones have our support,” added Casey. “Our thoughts—but more importantly our action—is with all of those who have been affected.” (PR)