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Tonga Volcanic Eruption: Recovery six months on

On 20 December 2021, an eruption began on Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai, a submarine volcano in the Tongan archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean. The eruption reached a very large and powerful climax nearly four weeks later, on 15 January 2022. The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano killed three people and resulted in a tsunami across the wider Pacific region. A recent study in Nature describes how the volcano erupted due to interaction of magma with water. The explosion is said to be so loud that it became the second loudest after the 1833 eruption in Indonesia. As per NASA, the explosion generated by the eruption was as loud as approximately 1-18 megatons of TNT, which is 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb explosion. Here, ash and gases from this eruption were released up to 44 km into the air.


If we talk about the impact of the eruption it increased the movement of the water that led to the tsunami in the nearby areas. Waves reached the height of 15 meters in the Pacific Ocean while the capital Nuku’alofa, which is located 65 km south of the volcano, experienced waves of 1.2m. Even countries like Japan and the USA reported waves between 1 and 4 ft. We are looking back at all the aspects of this hazard and its impact on the environment and vulnerable sections of society.


Effect on environment and community health:


Tonga has been covered in ash post the volcanic eruption which has created a negative impact on its people - health and even the environment, largely. Gases that were released during this hazard include sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide which could cause acid rains. The release of sulphur dioxide, commonly known as SO₂, in the stratosphere, causes oxidation which gets converted into sulphate aerosols. However, a team of Chinese researchers claim that Tonga’s volcanic eruption is not that strong to create an impact on global warming. It can only reduce by 0.004°C in the first year of the volcanic eruption. Meanwhile, all these gases have a potential negative health impact on those who are exposed to the ashes. It can cause health issues including respiratory diseases, irritation on skin and lungs, and eyes as there were some glass particles too present in those ashes.


Impact on locals:


Reportedly, 84,000 people and around 12,000 households were affected by the volcanic eruption. According to UN OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) , 80 percent of the locals were affected, collectively. The post-disaster effect includes contamination of water as ash deposits were mixed with water sources after the explosion. As per the report presented by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), 50,000 people do not have proper access to safe water for domestic and drinking processes. 60 to 70 percent of household’s livestock died while 60,000 plus people were affected by agricultural impacts as crops and fields were damaged by the tsunami and salty water got filled in the areas.


Effect on child education:


The mainland of Tongatapu, Eua and Ha’apai were covered with sand and volcanic dust that largely affected their homes, roads and schools. As per the Tonga government, the number of children that were affected by the disaster are around 28,000. This, followed by the effects of the tsunami! Post the disaster, teachers initiated a ‘cleaning program’ to clean the community for both people and children. Reportedly, they managed to clear three inches of sand and volcanic dust (Save the Children). Meanwhile, what’s more disheartening is the physical damage left behind in the schools, that includes study and curriculum materials, textbooks, notepads, furniture, school buildings, etc, which were damaged beyond use. The other aspect of this damage is the shift of academic calendar that is caused due to the calamity.


Humanitarian Aids:


As the emergency arises in Tonga, lots of international agencies came forward with relief operations. Tonga got financial support of around $1,000,600 from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (UN CERF) and from other donor countries. While approximately 84,000 people were affected by the disaster, only 337 households managed to receive shelter assistance. 30,000 people received WASH assistance, 15,000 people got health assistance and only 10,000 received nutrition assistance.


During this disaster, the island was also exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic followed by lockdown restrictions. In order to curb the virus exposure, over 9,300 vaccine doses and 15,000 rapid tests were delivered to the Tonga region. Due to the increase in laboratory capacity, over 70% of the total population has been fully vaccinated till February 23, 2022.


Humanitarian actors like ‘Save the Children’ came forward to help the locals while providing a better place for children. “It is very important for our kids to be back at school to cope, not only to cover the syllabus but also to talk with others about how they have survived in the face of the tsunami. We expect to see more children in the one classroom, sharing the same materials. For families forced to relocate from one island to another, it will take time for the kids to settle in. They will be struggling to get back to school, even to have school materials for the children and school uniforms,” Save’s Tonga Country Lead Maa’imoa Mafile’o said during a press release.


Recent reports indicate that land has been allocated to support rehabilitation of those affected. However, we still have a long way to go to ensure appropriate processes are put in place to support the recovery of Tonga's populations in dealing with the aftermath of this grave disaster.



This article is written by Nitesh Lohan, Project Officer, ETCH Consultancy Services


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