Food and water contamination feared
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Two people were killed and more than a hundred homes in Tonga were smashed down by a massive tsunami triggered by the violent eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai on Jan. 15, according to preliminary information received by the World Health Organization or WHO.
"Many remain displaced, with 89 people taking shelter in evacuation centers on the island of ‘Eua and many more seeking shelter with relatives," WHO said. "Around 2cm of ash and dust has fallen on Tongatapu, raising concerns of air pollution and the potential contamination of food and water supplies."
Health facilities on Tongatapu are fully functioning and clean-up efforts have been initiated, WHO said.
WHO and the United Nations currently serve as the central channel of information pending restoration of Tonga's telecommunications system, which collapsed after the twin disasters.
According to UN Office of Humanitarians Affairs, Tonga's telephone lines have been repaired. However, the office said the destruction of a key communications cable on the seabed made it difficult to restore international connections and internet service.
"So far in Tonga, no official contact has been established with two small low-lying islands Mango and Fonoi, although surveillance flights by New Zealand and Australia have revealed substantial damage along western beaches," the United Nations said in a separate statement today.
The UN is coordinating with Yutaro Setoya, WHO’s country liaison officer for Tonga, channeling communication between UN agencies and the Tongan government, and between the UN and their staff in Tonga.
"With international phone lines and internet connectivity still down, Dr. Setoya’s satellite phone is one of the few ways to get information into and out of the country," WHO said.
“(Dr. Setoya) has literally been standing outside from dawn until long into the night for the past few days to ensure that the phone can reach the satellite signal and he can pass along vital information,” said Sean Casey, WHO’s health cluster coordinator for the Pacific.
Based on initial reports gathered by Setoya, the massive waves damaged homes, buildings and infrastructure on the main island of Tongatapuonga. Around 100 houses have been damaged while 50 were completely torn apart.
WHO and UN said it was too early to determine the magnitude of havoc caused by the twin disasters.
"The Ha’apai and Vava’u island groups, for example, remain out of contact with the capital. There are particular concerns about the smaller and low-lying islands of Mango and Fonoi in the Ha’apai group," WHO said.
Scientists said the undersea volcano began showing activity on Dec. 20, but was declared dormant on Jan. 11. The Jan. 15 volcanic eruption was reported to be the largest Tonga – and potentially the world – has seen in 30 years.
"The government of the Kingdom of Tonga reacted swiftly, including deploying a naval vessel to the Ha’api islands carrying the WHO-trained Tonga Emergency Medical Assistance Team to help treat any people who may have been injured," WHO said. "The government has advised the Tongan public to remain indoors, use masks if going out, and to drink bottled water to avoid consequences of the ashfall."
Paulina Kubiak, spokesperson for the UN, said UN General Assembly president Abdulla Shahid is closely monitoring developments in the Pacific region.
"Mr. Shahid hails from the island archipelago of the Maldives, and he said the eruption in Tonga, once again demonstrates the vulnerability of small island developing states to natural disasters, such as tsunamis," Kubiak said.
The UN’s emergency response is coordinated via the Pacific Humanitarian Team which brings together United Nations agencies, the Red Cross movement and international non-governmental organizations to organize the provision of in-country and remote support to the Tongan government’s response efforts.
“We have very little way to contact the people of Tonga right now but, for all of their family and friends in other countries around the world, please know that your loved ones have our support,” Casey said. “Our thoughts – but more importantly our action – is with all of those who have been affected.”
The UN said assessments are still pending, particularly from the outer islands.
"The usual response options, when it comes to (small island developing states) are limited. There is limited higher ground. The ground water is easily contaminated and almost all infrastructure is located near the shoreline," Kubiak said.
In Washington D.C., Rep. Uifa’atali Amata, Samoa's delegate to Congress, released the following statement.
“The people of the Kingdom of Tonga are in our thoughts and most importantly in our prayers during this sad time. I think especially of families who haven’t heard from loved ones yet because of the limited communications following the devastating tsunami and volcanic ash," Amata said.
"In American Samoa, and neighboring Samoa, we have deep memories of the 2009 tsunami, and our hearts go out to Tonga as they help neighbors, assess the damage and begin recovery efforts. The United States and other nations have been generous in times like this, and I think we will see both possibilities of international aid and private charitable help, and I know God will bless such efforts."
The UN said it is coordinating with organization partners in planning the next steps to send assistance to Tonga.
"To support the Tongan government, the WFP is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more staff, and it has also received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga by deploying its Emergency Telecommunications Cluster," the UN said.
The ETC initiative brings together 29 organizations from the humanitarian, private and government sectors who work to provide shared communications services in emergencies, according to UN.
“We are on standby to provide humanitarian support to the Government of Tonga and its people affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Pacific representative.
“UNICEF will work with the government, civil society organizations, and other development partners to ensure immediate response efforts on the ground, which includes providing clean water, and emergency health supplies for children and families affected," he added.