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Distance, volcanic ash delay Tonga aid: UN

Updated: 2022-01-20 08:21
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Supplies intended as relief material are prepared to be sent to Tonga by the Australian Red Cross, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, January 19, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

UNITED NATIONS - Needs assessment expands for Tonga volcano disaster relief and aid efforts scale up, but delivery is delayed by distance and ash-laden runways, UN humanitarians said on Wednesday.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing Tongan authorities, said that water, food and restoration of communications top the list of needs. However, it will be days before naval ships from Australia and New Zealand can arrive and dock on the main island of Tongatapu.

Saturday's eruption affects 84,000 people, or 80 percent of the population, OCHA said. The casualty count remains at three dead and an unknown number of people injured.

While 90 percent of electricity on Tongatapu is back up, volcanic ash blocks runways at the international airport at Nuku'alofa, the capital city. They are expected to be cleared by Thursday local time, said OCHA.

Domestic phone service operates only within Tongatapu and 'Eua islands.

When foreign relief can be delivered it is expected to be on a hands-off basis because of the island kingdom's strict anti-COVID protocols. It is one of the few COVID-free countries in the world.

"The United Nations is concerned about the islands of Mango, Fonoifua, and Nomuka which have been severely impacted, though sparsely populated," the office said. "All houses are destroyed on Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka. Evacuation of people from Mango and Fonoifua to Nomuka is under way."

Surveillance flight data showed up to 100 houses were severely damaged on the main island and about 50 on 'Eua, OCHA said. Tongan authorities are conducting search-and-rescue operations and have sent two vessels carrying health teams and water, food and tents to the Ha'apai island group, where Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka are located.

The humanitarian office said the Tongan Red Cross Society and other local partners are distributing emergency water, food rations, shelter and kitchen supplies. The UN Children's Fund is shipping water and other supplies with Australia's HMAS Adelaide, but the ship won't leave for Tonga until Friday.

Japan announced an emergency grant of more than 1 million U.S. dollars along with a pledge to send relief supplies and equipment, OCHA said. The Red Cross Society of China will provide 100,000 dollars in cash and humanitarian assistance.

On one of Tonga's nearest neighbors in the southwestern Pacific, Fiji, 50 engineers from the military forces are on standby to assist in the relief effort should there be a request by the Tongan government, the office said.

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