Nearly 85% of Tonga’s 105,000 people have been affected by the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami, the government said earlier this week.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano is located approximately 65 kilometers from Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa. The January 15 eruption, one of the largest in 30 years, triggered a 1.2 meter high tsunami that slammed into the main island of Tongatapu and devastated the islands of the Ha’ group. apai, near the volcano.
Both Nomuka and Mango Islands suffered extensive damage. Sixty-two residents of remote Mango Island had to relocate to nearby Nomuka after losing their homes and possessions, but were forced to relocate to Tongatapu again due to food and water shortages.
Communities, roads and airports were blanketed in thick ash, and floodwaters damaged infrastructure, homes and schools. Power and communication channels were almost completely cut off. Many boats in the country were destroyed by the tsunami. The death toll remains at three.
A New Zealander living in Tonga recounted Things on January 25 that people were “struggling” to breathe and stores closed due to ash fall. Jordan McCarthy, from the village of Pangu, said gardens, roads and houses were now covered in a “fine ash”. Businesses and food markets were hit hard and most produce was wiped out when a mixture of ash and water hardened into a “hail-like stone”, McCarthy said.
Experts have confirmed that the ashfall will affect the health of residents, contaminate freshwater supplies and damage crops. Shane Cronin, professor of volcanology at the University of Auckland, said the ash could take weeks to disappear, depending on the rain. “Without running water, it was impossible to wash away the ashes. Instead, Tongans will have to sweep up the ashes,” he said.
Several New Zealand and Australian Air Force flights have landed at Fua’amotu’s main airport, bringing relief. The flights were only able to land because more than 120 locals flocked to the airport to sweep the ash from the runway. Volunteers spent 16 hours a day for four days sweeping the airstrip. Another 50 were involved in a similar effort at Ha’apai airport.
Many regions are still scrambling to restore basic necessities. The National Emergency Operations Center said clean water was still their top concern. The Tonga Relief Committee of Aotearoa, New Zealand, said breakfast food, mainly for children, garden tools and outboard motors, was desperately needed. Auckland’s Tongan community has so far collected NZ$1.6 million worth of food and groceries with shipping containers set to reach Nuku’alofa on Monday.
Telephone communications between the islands remain a major challenge according to the Tongan government. International and domestic communications were lost when the submarine cable linking Tonga to Fiji was damaged. The extent of the damage will not be known until a repair ship arrives. According to US Subcom, repairing the cable is “not a simple process” and is expected to take weeks. Tonga Cable Ltd chairman Samuiela Fonua told Radio NZ the cable is in the area that was directly affected by the eruption and conditions at the site are a major concern.
The problems establishing essential communications produced a notable degrading episode. Several desperate pleas, including from Speaker of Parliament Lord Fakafanua and New Zealand opposition MP Shane Reti, have been made to US tech billionaire Elon Musk to provide internet terminals to help reconnect Tongans to the internet in using the 49 Starlink satellites of his company SpaceX.
Musk tweeted in response, “It’s a hard thing for us to do right now because we don’t have enough satellites with laser links and there are already geo satellites serving the Tonga region.” Responding to a later Reuters story, Musk asked the Tongans to confirm “if it is important for SpaceX to send through Starlink terminals”. In a heated exchange, people pointed out that Tongans couldn’t respond to Musk because they had no internet connection! In the end, nothing came out.
The amount of aid offered by the local imperialist powers, New Zealand and Australia, remains woefully insufficient. New Zealand’s contribution is NZ$3 million, covering relief supplies, water-generating capacity and clean-up equipment, as well as grants to aid organisations. Australia’s total is similar at AU$3 million. Canberra typically uses its allocated aid budget in such emergencies, but this amounts to just 0.19% of gross national income, far below the 0.7% recommended by the UN.
International assistance is underway, with the arrival of New Zealand and Australian Air Force and Navy ships and others from Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and of Fiji. The operation is fraught with pitfalls due to the possible introduction of COVID-19 in this fragile country. Tonga has only reported one case of COVID and is one of the few countries currently designated as virus-free. Only about 61% of Tongans are fully immunized. The importation of the virus could well trigger a human catastrophe greater than the volcanic eruption.
The dangers were underscored this week when nearly two dozen sailors aboard the Australian Navy ship HMAS Adelaide, en route to Tonga, were confirmed to be infected. The ship was eventually forced to deliver food without contact with the population. An Australian C-17 Globemaster military transport plane has already turned around mid-flight after a crew member on board was also diagnosed with COVID.
The international aid operation has little to do with meeting the urgent and overwhelming needs of the people of Tonga. The imperialist powers seek to exploit the environmental and humanitarian disasters, frequent in the vulnerable region, for geopolitical and militaristic purposes.
The crisis is already being used to stoke anti-China sentiment. write in Nikkei Asia, New Zealand journalist Michael Field noted that former Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was quick to tweet that Australia should be the first to help Tonga. “Failing that,” Rudd said, “China will be there in spades.” Australia’s big warships should be dispatched immediately, he said: “That’s why we built them.”
Jonathan Pryke, of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said the aid provided by Australia and New Zealand is “not entirely altruistic”. Such support generates “a lot of goodwill and ‘soft power’ in the region”, he said, and gives “defense assets” from both countries “the chance to ‘get on the ground'”. .
The New Zealand website Things also published an op-ed repeating Washington’s accusations that Beijing is conducting “debt-trap diplomacy” in the Pacific. In 2006, China offered Tonga a $100 million loan to rebuild Nuku’alofa after the riots. Tonga currently owes nearly two-thirds of its debt to the Export-Import Bank of China. In 2020, Tonga asked China to cancel its debt.
The reality is that as Washington’s escalation toward war intensifies, the United States and its local allies, Australia and New Zealand, are seeking to strengthen their ties with Pacific nations and to strengthen their military presence in the region, in order to repel the attack from China. affecting. While doing the bare minimum to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe, the imperialist powers are using the Tongan crisis to advance this reactionary and dangerous campaign.