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Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami hits Tonga

by Eleanor Knight 19th January 2022

What happened?

On January 13, 2021, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga. The underwater eruption caused tsunami waves throughout the South Pacific and has covered Tonga in toxic ash. Neighboring governments are surveying the damage, but very little is known right now as communications are down.

The eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is one of the most violent ever captured on satellite. The underwater eruption lasted for eight minutes generating a 3-mile wide plume of ash, steam, and gas that rose 12 miles into the air. It sent shockwaves and triggered tsunami waves across the South Pacific. The eruption was so violent it could be heard as “loud thunder sounds” in Fiji, a country more than 500 miles away.

A tsunami warning was issued in countries as far away as the US and Canada. There is a particular concern for the low-lying islands Mango and Fonoi as there was an active distress signal detected from Mango.

What do we know so far?

ShelterBox is monitoring the situation closely in order to determine the shelter needs of the affected communities and if a response using ShelterBox aid is appropriate. 

Communications are usually impacted after a disaster, but this is an exceptional case as all communications with the island have been severed. Even satellite phones are having trouble getting through because of the ash cloud. New Zealand and Australia have carried out surveillance flights to explore the extent of the damage. Our decision to respond will become more clear once this work is carried out.

So far, up to 80,000 people have been affected and there is growing concern about the extent of the damage to homes. Fears are also mounting that communities have been left without access to safe and clean drinking water because of contamination from volcanic ash and dust.

ShelterBox operations teams continue to monitor the situation and will provide updates once more information is known.

Update: January 24th

ShelterBox has been closely monitoring the situation in Tonga ever since news of the volcano and tsunami emerged. After much investigation and consultation, it has recently been announced that ShelterBox will not be responding in Tonga.

We will continue to focus on going where people will not receive shelter support from any other sources after disaster and where there is a clear need for ShelterBox. Our reasoning is based on the findings below.

  • In Tonga, large-scale government responses are being provided by New Zealand, Australia, China, with further support from Japan and the UK.
  • People in Tonga are also receiving support from other organisations with local or regional presence including the Red Cross, UNICEF and ERKs (Rotary New Zealand’s Emergency Response Kits for the Pacific area).
  • We have been working with these organisations and others to understand the likely extent of shelter aid need and we believe communities in Tonga are likely to receive support from those organisations.
  • The Red Cross has aid in Tonga which it has started to distribute. UNICEF has supplies in Brisbane and Fiji, which are also being sent to Tonga.
  • ShelterBox is helping people across the world who have had to leave their homes because of disaster or conflict. We are currently working in the Philippines, following the super typhoon that hit the country last month, as well as in Syria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Yemen, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and Haiti.
  • ShelterBox teams have responded with emergency shelter in the South Pacific region before, most recently in Vanuatu and Fiji.

For the above reasons, we have not launched an appeal for Tonga and continue to concentrate on our Typhoon Rai Appeal, to help those affected by the super-typhoon that hit the Philippines just before Christmas.

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ShelterBox Australia understands that RAWCS has launched an appeal for Tonga. Click here to learn more if you would like to support the people of Tonga.

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