Tonga volcanic eruption: Update

Tonga volcano eruption
Ashfall in Tonga following the volcanic eruption. Photos: NZ Defence Force

The confirmed death toll as a result of the Tonga volcanic eruption stands at two, although there  may be other, yet unconfirmed casualties.

There are concerns that there are growing fuel shortages, and panic buying has caused some grocery stores to run low on stock.

Communications

While international and inter-island calls are still not possible due to the damage to the undersea Southern Cross Cable Network cable, Digicel has set up an interim system on Tongatapu using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish.

The need for a communication backup has been an ongoing concern for Tonga, whose sole reliance on satellite ended in 2013 when the Southern Cross Cable Network landed there via a cable leg from SCCN’s Fiji landing at FINTEL.

“A cable-ship has been mobilised.  It will take two to three days to pick up spares from the Samoa Cable Depot before sailing to the cable break site.  Repair works will commence depending on the conditions, but normally, it takes two weeks.  This is Tonga’s second cable break within three years,” FINTEL CEO George Samisoni told Islands Business

Testing, he added, had identified the cable break point to be roughly 37 kilometers from Tonga while the extent of damage can only be confirmed once the cable ship does its survey prior to repair work.

The repair work on the Tongan leg is being arranged by Tonga Cable Ltd and Subcom, the South Pacific Maintenance authority.

Singaporean-based satellite service provider Kacific Broadband Satellites Ltd said it is well equipped to provide international broadband connectivity to Tonga following the Hunga-Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Kacific provided a 12-day emergency connectivity relief to Tonga during the first cable disruption in January 2019 and the two parties later inked a US$5.76 million deal for the provision of a number of services, among them a backup infrastructure via Kacific’s satellite service for 15 years in case of further cable disruption.

“Kacific can provide Ka-band coverage to the islands using beams from its Kacific1 satellite positioned over Tonga, and is prepared to provide a full suite of satellite broadband services under a Framework Services Agreement that was negotiated and signed by Tongan Authorities in April 2019. However, the previous Government was unwilling to perform the contract, and it is currently subject to arbitration in Singapore,” said  company CEO, Christian Patouraux in a statement released this week.

Tonga is currently accessible to the outside world via satellite telephones, typically available only to a few, especially foreign embassies.

Difficulties in communication via the satellite phones have been reported and blamed on the massive ash cloud fallout from the volcanic eruption, a link that Patouraux dismisses.

“Right now there is no indication that satellite services are affected by volcanic ash in Tonga. Various satellite links are operating fine in Tonga at the moment, including some private satellite links operating from embassies. Kacific has previously operated its services through dense volcanic ash in Indonesia and in the Philippines, without any issue,” he told Islands Business.

“Satellite phones work differently from satellite broadband services, so we can’t comment on them, but we believe that issues reported by satellite phone users may be because so many people are using these phones in Tonga at the moment, making this narrow-band service quite saturated.”  

Further volcanic activity

Modelling suggests there will be ongoing eruptions over the next several weeks, with ongoing an tsunami risk to Tonga and its closest neighbours.

“Further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The OCHA said there had been no contact from the Ha’apai group of islands and there was “particular concern” about two small low-lying islands – Fonoi and Mango, where an active distress beacon had been detected. According to the Tonga government, 36 people live on Mango and 69 on Fonoi.

Relief and regional solidarity

Work is continuing to clear Tonga’s airport runway to allow relief flights to land, and this work is expected to be complete tomorrow.

The HMS Wellington and HMS Aotearoa have departed New Zealand for Tonga.

“HMNZS Wellington will be carrying Hydrographic Survey and Diving Teams, as well as an SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopter. HMNZS Aotearoa will carry bulk water supplies and humanitarian and disaster relief stores,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess the damage and Australia’s Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said Australian police had visited beaches and reported significant damage with “houses thrown around”.

Acting Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum & Prime Minister of Fiji, Hon. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum  said: “Assistance to Tonga must be our main priority and we seek the support of all our Forum Leaders and Dialogue Partners. We’re also working with our immediate neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, to mobilise the necessary humanitarian and recovery support. The recovery from this unfortunate event may go on for an extended period. Complicating matters is the ongoing COVID-19 situation, but we will find a way. We always have.”

The tsunami resulting from the volcano also affected Fiji, in particular the Lau group where there are concerns over fresh water supplies.

Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea has pledged assistance to Tonga following Saturday’s massive underwater volcanic eruption which caused tsunami affecting neighbouring island nations as well.

 Israel is exploring options to provide aid to Tonga after the archipelago was hit by a volcanic eruption and a tsunami on Saturday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced on Sunday.

Additional reporting by Dionisia Tabureguci

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