Berlin/Nuku’alofaThe remote location of Tonga has long proved to be a great advantage: the Pacific country had sealed itself off from the outside world since the beginning of the pandemic and was one of the few countries that were virtually corona-free. But after the devastating volcanic eruption on Saturday, the isolation proved to be a major disadvantage: the archipelago, around 2,000 kilometers from New Zealand, could not be reached immediately by the aid and rescue workers. In addition, communication was disrupted because an undersea cable was damaged by the eruptions. And so we have only received sparse information from the disaster area.

Corona protection: No direct contact with the helpers

Two planes with aid supplies from New Zealand and Australia landed on the main island of Tongatapu for the first time on Thursday. This is good news, but in addition to the joy about the international aid that is now beginning, ships are also due to land in Tonga soon, there is concern in the country with around 104,000 inhabitants that foreign helpers could import the virus. Tonga closed its borders in March 2020 with the start of the pandemic and has since largely isolated itself from the outside world.

AP/Australian Defence Force

Fua’amotu Airport near the capital: Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni (right) and Rachael Moore, Australia’s High Commissioner for Tonga, welcome the first Australian military transport planes.

In addition to urgently needed drinking water, the New Zealand planes are also bringing temporary accommodation, generators, hygiene kits and communication equipment. In order not to endanger the population, any direct contact between the occupants of the machines and the people of Tonga was avoided. “The delivery of relief supplies is contactless. The aircraft is expected to remain grounded for approximately 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” said New Zealand Defense Minister Peeni Henare.

More fatalities and injuries feared

The massive eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, just 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, ejected a plume of ash and gas 12 miles into the air. A subsequent high-wave tsunami reached even faraway regions such as Alaska, Japan and South America. On the islands of Tonga, some of which are very remote, there is severe damage from tidal waves up to 15 meters high. At least three people were killed. But experts fear more victims.

AFP / Courtesy of Viliami Uasike Latu

Covered by a layer of ash up to 15 centimeters thick: the beaches in the west of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu.

The information situation is still confusing. Now we get the first pictures from Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa. They show burnt buildings, fallen walls, and roads strewn with boulders, logs, and other debris. You can also see houses destroyed by the tsunami waves. And everywhere there is a grey-brown layer of ash up to 15 centimeters thick. It also covered the airport’s runway, only after the authorities had laboriously cleared it in the past few days were planes able to land here again.

Risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea

On some remote islands almost all houses are destroyed and people are homeless. Of the 172 islands in the archipelago, only 36 are inhabited, with around 80,000 residents affected by the disaster, according to the UN. At least three people were killed. “Unfortunately, given the size of the explosion and tsunami that was felt across the Pacific Rim, I would be very surprised if more people were not injured. But we have to get to the area first to find out,” said Jim Gilmour of the New Zealand Defense Force.

imago/Marian Kupu

Residents of the capital Nuku’alofa clear the streets of ash and debris on Thursday (January 20, 2022).

In addition to the neighboring countries, Japan also wants to send relief supplies to the region. The World Bank announced that it would make eight million dollars (seven million euros) available as an immediate measure. “While there is not yet a full picture of the damage caused by this massive disaster, we know it is significant,” said Stephen Ndegwa, World Bank country director for the Pacific Islands.

According to experts, the local people primarily need drinking water, since ash and salt water could have made the existing supplies undrinkable. Katie Greenwood of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned of a “growing risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea”.

imago/Consulate Of The Kingdom Of Tonga

Houses and trees destroyed by the tsunami in Nuku’alofa: The number of dead and injured is not yet known.

There are also fears for the island’s food supply: the President of the National Assembly of Tonga, Fatafehi ​​Fakafanua, said with tears that the entire agriculture was ruined. (with dpa, AFP)

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