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Tonga Volcano: Lives Lost and Homes Destroyed as Extent of Damage Becomes Clearer

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (Jan. 19, 2022)—At least three people have been killed and 50 homes destroyed following the eruption of an underwater volcano near Tonga on Saturday that triggered a tsunami, with parts of the South Pacific archipelago still cut off from all communication.

Up to 80,000 people, including at least 28,000 children, are estimated to have been affected across the country which has a population of about 100,000. As confirmed by the Government of Tonga, extensive damage is reported across the western side of the Tongatapu Islands, ‘Eua and Ha’apai Islands with most displaced families staying with relatives.

The volcano erupted about 65km (40 miles) north of the capital Nuku'alofa, and triggered a tsunami which flooded parts of the archipelago. The eruption emitted a plume of ash, steam and gas, rising approximately 20km (12.4 miles) above the volcano, and blanketing parts of the country with ash and smoke. 

A comprehensive assessment of humanitarian needs is still not possible due to the lack of functioning communication equipment and inaccessibility of some of the most affected areas. Australia and New Zealand carried out surveillance flights over Tonga, however planned relief flights are on hold until thick ash cover can be cleared from the tarmac.

In addition to concerns for the welfare of families who lost their homes, there is an immediate threat to the health of children and their parents due to ash pollution in drinking water. Authorities have already reported some water sources being contaminated by ash, which can contain heavy metals like copper, cadmium and arsenic.

Shairana Ali, CEO of Save the Children Fiji, said:

“As the picture from Tonga slowly becomes clearer, Save the Children’s concerns grow for children and families affected. Children in Tonga were due to return to school on January 31st but the damage and destruction to schools will undoubtedly delay the resumption of learning.

“Save the Children stands ready to support the people of Tonga in whatever way we can. The people of Pacific Island nations are sadly used to facing disasters.

“With seawaters having risen across the Pacific as a result of climate change, countries like Tonga and Fiji are more vulnerable than ever to tsunamis. While we are resilient and trying to adapt, it only takes a few extra meters of water to cover a house, to kill a child or family.”

Climate change is posing increasingly severe threats to many of the islands in the Pacific, particularly the low-lying atoll islands and coastal communities. With rising sea waters, these Islands are more vulnerable to the impact of tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. 

 In Tonga, Save the Children supports the Ministry of Education to deliver a $1 million (AUD) distance learning program utilizing technology to reach outlying islands and remote populations. Known as the Hama eLearning Platform, the partners stand ready to activate this service capable of supporting education and critical training as an emergency response.  

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