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Thousands affected in Tonga, several islands seriously damaged

  • 19 Jan 2022

About 84,000 people — more than 80 percent of Tonga's population — impacted by the volcano's eruption, UN officials say while Red Cross confirms serious damage to three small islands of the Pacific nation.

Tonga has not yet made clear its needs from the international community, and complicating matters is the country's concern over the possible spread of Covid-19. ( Reuters )

Three of Tonga's smaller islands have suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said, as a wider picture begins to emerge of the destruction caused by the eruption of an undersea volcano near the Pacific archipelago nation.

UN humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80 percent of Tonga's population — have been impacted by the volcano's eruption, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of homes, and polluted water.

Communications have been down throughout Tonga since the eruption on Saturday, but a ship made it to the outlying islands of Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua on Wednesday, and reported back that few homes remain standing after settlements were hit with 49 feet -high waves, said Katie Greenwood, the head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which had two people aboard the vessel to help assess the damage.

"Very unfortunate information has come to light overnight about the three islands that we were really worried about — that they have all suffered devastating consequences as an effect of these incoming waves," she told The Associated Press in an interview from Fiji. 

"Most of the structures and dwellings on those islands have been completely destroyed."

The UN's Dujarric said, "all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka." 

He said evacuations are under way for people from the islands.

He said the most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and non-food items, and top priorities are re-establishing communication services including for international calls and the internet.

"The clean-up of the international airport continues, and it is hoped that it will be operational on Thursday," Dujarric said. As for the port, it is understood that ships will be able to dock on the main island of Tongatapu.

'Contactless disaster relief'

Tonga has not yet made clear its needs from the international community, and complicating matters is the country's concern over the possible spread of Covid-19, which it has effectively kept outside its borders except for one case reported in a traveler from New Zealand in October.

Tonga is hoping for "almost contactless disaster relief" as a precaution, the Red Cross' Greenwood said, acknowledging that this would complicate efforts but is also understandable amid the pandemic.

"They really don't want to exchange one disaster for another," she said.

Some 60 percent of Tonga's 106,000 people have already received two doses of a Covid vaccine, and nearly 70 percent have received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data.

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