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Tonga, Asia Pacific | Volcano and Tsunami - Revised Emergency Appeal N°: MDRTO002 (Revision # 1)

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On 15 January 2022, at 17:20 local time, the undersea Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai volcano, 65 kilometres north of Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa, erupted with a violence of historic proportions. The eruption lasted approximately eight minutes and could be heard and felt 700km away in Fiji. It released a cloud of ash billowing more than 20 kilometres high. The force of the eruption quickly caused a Pacific-wide tsunami, swamping coastlines and causing casualties and damage in Japan, Chile and North America. In Peru, two deaths were recorded as a result of the tsunami. While the volcano had been erupting intermittently since 20 December 2021, causing earlier ashfall and a tsunami warning on 14 January, the magnitude of the eruption on 15 January was entirely unexpected.

External communication with Tonga was completely cut. Power outages, damage to land-based infrastructure, and severing an undersea fibre-optic cable running to Fiji and Australia meant that telecommunications were totally disabled. A domestic undersea cable was also severely damaged, and a thick ash cloud rendered satellite phones inoperable. This telecommunications blackout lasted several days, affecting the work of government and humanitarian agencies. The international undersea cable was repaired by 22 February 2022 but as of 21 March the domestic undersea cable is still not expected to be repaired in the near future.

On 17 January 2022, surveillance flights carried out by the New Zealand Defence Force and the Australian Airforce identified the west coast of Tongatapu, the Ha'apai island group, and the west coast of 'Eua island group as the areas most affected by the eruption and tsunami waves. The flight recorded scenes comparable to a lunar landscape, as ashfall and debris up to four centimetres thick blanketed these areas. The airborne ash impacted the whole population in these areas, with a certain percentage suffering breathing difficulties.

The Tongan government reported three direct fatalities and one subsequent death from the eruption. This relatively small number partly reflects Tonga's preparedness for disaster events. Previous disaster events have included cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis, and there are a handful of active volcanos. Government messaging has raised awareness of the steps to be taken in the event of a tsunami, and the Tonga Red Cross Society (TRCS) has also co-led disaster preparedness activities with the Tongan government in numerous communities.

Ashfall has had significant impacts on shelter, and many homes in coastal areas have also been inundated with seawater. Some small islands in the Ha'apai group were completely flooded, and residents had to wait on high ground to be rescued.

It was initially estimated that some hundreds of households had suffered significant damage. In March, the Tongan National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) released the Initial Damage Assessments (IDA) report in conjunction with the Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment,
Climate Change, and Communications (MEIDECC) and the National Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT).
The report states that 284 households ("HH") shelters have been severely damaged or completely destroyed, while 182 have suffered minor or moderate damage.

The impacts of flooding caused by the tsunami have been exacerbated by subsequent heavy rainfall over an extended period. There have also been earthquakes around Tonga since the eruption, including at least two over 6.0 on the Richter scale. However, there were no reports of significant damage from these.

Following the eruption, people were evacuated from several islands, including Mango, Fafa, Pangaimotu and Makaha, and others were relocated due to damage to their homes. As of 15 January, over 3,000 people were staying in evacuation centres, and this number fell to 2,390 people by 31 January. While many have returned home or are staying with family and friends, some evacuation centres remain operational.

An update on the number of people still in evacuation centres is currently unavailable. People staying in these centres receive support for essential needs, including food and hygiene, while King and Government are currently working with evacuated communities on plans for more permanent re-location and the re-building of community infrastructure on Crown land. It is unclear what Crown resources have been set aside for re-location and re-building or how more in-depth community consultations will occur as plans develop.

Regarding water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), initial data suggested that approximately 50,000 people have been affected, and access to drinking water remains a critical priority. Many household water tanks have been damaged by ashfall and debris. At the same time, saltwater inundation and power outages in some areas have also severely impacted the ability of population centres to access useable groundwater.

Families have felt the loss of livelihoods, including damage to crops, and whole economic sectors reflect this. NEMO has also found that 200 boats, including fishing boats, have been destroyed or severely damaged.

The World Bank's Disaster - Resilience Analytics and Solutions (D-RAS) and Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) have estimated direct damage following the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai (HTHH) volcano and tsunami to be USD 90.4 million (CHF 83.7 million). In Tonga, where nearly 80 per cent of households are involved in their own food production in kitchen gardens, extensive damage to above-soil crops and saltwater inundation will affect the ability of some households to grow their own food. The Tongan government and other agencies in the country have been providing food support to affected households. Red Cross consultations with community members evacuated from outer islands have revealed significant livelihood impacts, with community members discussing potential long-term livelihood opportunities if they are relocated. Fisherfolk may also need to re-train or seek livelihood opportunities suited to new locations.

The medical needs and impact on health systems on the outer islands are still largely unknown as well. The Ministry of Health has set up a field hospital on Nomuka, where a previous health centre was washed away by the tsunami. All of the affected population have likely been affected psychologically. The combined impact of the volcano, tsunami, and subsequent challenges in contacting family and friends, along with damage to personal property and the subsequent outbreak of COVID-19, have contributed to a need for psychosocial support.
Standing water from the tsunami could also contribute to an increased risk of infectious diseases. The Ministry of Health has sprayed in affected communities to reduce the incidence of dengue fever.

Red Cross has raised concerns over the increase in plastic waste within communities from bottled water. Increased waste and the environmental impact of standing water and ashfall initially increased vermin. Community awareness campaigns are now urging households to ensure water is not pooling in plastic bottles and containers to reduce the chance of vectorborne disease.

On 18 January, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency effective from 16 January, then extended to 10 April. Both the government and TRCS subsequently requested international assistance.


The eruption and tsunami response in Tonga has now been complicated by an outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Two cases of the Omicron variant were detected during routine testing of port workers on 2 February. As of 4 April, there had been 7,127 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with nine deaths. As of 24 March, the Ministry of Health reported that over 98 per cent of Tonga's eligible population had received at least one dose of the COVID19 vaccine, 90 per cent had received two doses, and 47 per cent had received booster shots.

Following the identification of the first COVID-19 cases, the Tongan government implemented control measures on Tongatapu and Vava'u, including a rolling lockdown, a curfew, school and business closures, and restrictions on events and gatherings. Some have subsequently been eased, and tertiary institutions have reopened.
Students in forms 6 and 7 were expected to return to school on 16 March. However, following an increase in case numbers, on 18 March, a second lockdown was announced from 20 to 26 March. This lockdown was extended for another week until 2 April. A less stringent lockdown was then put in place for the week of 2 to 9 April.

These COVID-19 restrictions impact relief efforts, although NEMO, TRCS and others are committed to continuing relief activities. TRCS has been granted an order in the National COVID-19 Lockdown Restrictions Directions, issued on 2 February, enabling it to carry out critical response activities. However, operations have been largely suspended during the lockdown to minimize risk. Additionally, several TRCS staff have been identified as primary contacts of COVID-positive individuals and are in home isolation, unable to actively participate in response activities.

TRCS has been instrumental in the Tongan emergency coordination system, and local inter-cluster coordination groups immediately activated after the eruption. In the absence of communication with, or support from, the international humanitarian system, TRCS and other local actors immediately evacuated communities to higher ground, established evacuation centres, gathered assessment teams, and began distributing essential non-food items and clean water. Pre-positioned stocks that TRCS had on hand have been essential for the hundreds of Tongans rendered homeless. Despite its headquarters being damaged and severe coordination constraints with the loss of communications, TRCS has provided extensive support to NEMO on water and food distribution. The table below shows the distribution of essential household items by 10 March and donations from Fiji, local businesses, and other sources.

Early in the response, TRCS hired nine portable toilets for use in two affected communities on Tongatapu, and as of 21 March, six remained in place and are being serviced every two days.

With support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), TRCS commenced Restoring Family Links (RFL) services on 20 January. By 26 January, 150 Tongan households had made "safe and well" calls to family overseas using TRCS satellite phones. In addition, enquiries were received from 42 international family members seeking news of Tongan relatives. RFL was temporarily suspended when lockdown commenced on 2 February.
While the need for RFL has now eased on Tongatapu, the ongoing challenges in communication with other island groups mean that TRCS will continue to provide RFL as needed.

TRCS has also supported the Ministry of Health with the dissemination of COVID-19 prevention messaging, including the distribution of information-education-communication (IEC) materials and key messaging in businesses and government offices.


In the aftermath of this unprecedented volcanic explosion, which triggered shockwaves felt as far away as Europe and a Pacific-wide Tsunami causing fatalities in Peru, the Tonga response has received extensive and generous support. This support includes cash pledges, Rapid Response support, relief items and assistance to mobilize additional resources, leading to a revision of the original appeal from CHF 2.5 million to CHF 4 million.

TRCS recognizes the need to apply adaptive principles to meet shifting needs and grasp opportunities to be innovative and strategic in building community, organizational and coordination resilience as Tonga recovers from this crisis. Since the response began, TRCS has shared several lessons, and generous support to this emergency appeal will enable them to apply these lessons in the coming years.

The first of these lessons is that preparedness saved lives; well-trained staff and volunteers were able to establish an immediate and coordinated action plan, and pre-positioned stock ensured a fast response, meeting the immediate needs of the affected population. TRCS recognizes that in future events, decentralization of prepositioned stock, community-based stock holdings, well-trained volunteers and localized operation centres will enable fast action and a scaled-up, locally-led response across all territories. Revision of the appeal will allow the targeting of key vulnerable communities to develop response and recovery infrastructure, train additional Red Cross response volunteers, and develop community response plans.

The second lesson is that environmental sustainability ("Green Response") principles must be applied to build back more sustainably and avoid any unintended consequences for the environment due to the rapid response. Revision of the appeal will allow each response intervention to be carefully assessed and planned to minimize environmental impact and grasp opportunities to ensure a sustainable recovery, conscious of the climate crisis and the likelihood of more frequent and increasingly damaging future hazards.

The third lesson is that the arrival of COVID-19 brings the need to mainstream pandemic preparedness and response within community recovery. Revision of the appeal will ensure that response risk management can consider risks to the community and TRCS staff and volunteers, while addressing multiple risk communication needs. When the original Emergency Appeal was launched, there were no active cases of COVID-19 in Tonga, but since the outbreak, the Ministry of Health has been leading the response. COVID-19 prevention and response measures are now an integral part of the response and will need further incorporation into community recovery and resilience.

The fourth lesson is that both Tonga and TRCS must grasp the opportunity to build back better. For Tongan communities, the revised appeal will enable community recovery infrastructure that serves the diverse needs of marginalized people to ensure their safety and inclusion. For TRCS, it will ensure National Society Development and sustainability through enhanced response infrastructure that can cope with the shocks that have made this response so uniquely challenging. TRCS and the IFRC country cluster delegation for the Pacific (CCD) are working closely on TRCS response and recovery resourcing to ensure that the right mix of technical support is available across the life of the response both on the ground, within TRCS and the CCD. TRCS is keen that its scale-up is well planned and sequenced, and that support for the response does not overwhelm the National Society or its coordination partners. Revision of the appeal will also ensure that the Pacific CCD can support TRCS to sustain its diverse auxiliary functions across its territories, while the long-term response is implemented in targeted communities.

On finalization of the current pledge interest, it is anticipated that an increased emergency appeal of 4 million Swiss francs will be fully funded. Accordingly, no further funding is currently sought for the appeal. After the initial two-year appeal period, it is anticipated that IFRC and TRCS will continue to work together on recovery activities. These will be incorporated into ongoing National Society and IFRC country plans and will reflect synergies with the National Society's strategic goals and the goals and challenges in IFRC's Strategy 2030.