Underwater Volcano Erupts, Plunging Tonga Into Crisis

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Late on the afternoon of January 15, 2022, an underwater volcano erupted violently in the South Pacific, sending up a high plume of ash and triggering a four-foot tsunami that crashed ashore in coastal areas of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, along with several other low-lying Tongan islands. 

The eruption of the underwater volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Taa’pai, is said to have been one of the biggest in the world in the past 30 years.

On January 15, 2022, a satellite image captured an explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haa’pai underwater volcano, located in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga. © UNICEF 2022

The majority of Tonga has been blanketed by volcanic ash, impacting safe water supply. Air quality is also a concern, along with the outbreak of waterborne diseases. The tsunami inundated coastal regions, leaving inland floodwaters and damaged infrastructure behind.

The total impact of the volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami is still being assessed. Communications with Tonga as well as between Tongan islands remain a challenge; even satellite phones are working only intermittently.  

Safe drinking water supply and environmental cleanup are top priorities

UNICEF is mobilizing emergency supplies prepositioned in its Australian humanitarian warehouse in Brisbane for immediate deployment to Tonga. Some 44 palettes of supplies will be loaded for shipment on the HMAS Adelaide of the Royal Australian Navy. The shipment includes:

  • 1,000 water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and dignity kits for families, containing buckets, soap (laundry and handwashing), sanitary pads, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and collapsible jerry cans
  • 50 recreational kits for children, including balls, jump ropes, hackey sacks, writing supplies and board games

Safe drinking water is an urgent concern. Chlorine testers and water purification tablets from UNICEF’s Fiji stock are ready to be delivered once transport becomes available.  Most Tongans depend on rainwater collected in tanks, many of which have been contaminated by volcanic ash. The current water system must be disinfected and rehabilitated in affected communities, schools and health care facilities.

Eighty church volunteers previously trained by UNICEF will provide psychological first aid and psychological support to traumatized children and their families. Child-Friendly Spaces will be set up where children can play safely. 

Other supplies are being readied for future delivery as needed, including:

  • Health kits with basic medicines to treat waterborne diseases and infections, along with basic diagnostic equipment and medical supplies.
  • Nutrition supplements including Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food to treat malnourished children under age 5
  • Early Childhood Development (ECD) kits for younger children, containing books, crayons, dominos and building blocks
  • Tents to accomodate makeshift clinics and temporary learning spaces  
  • School in a Box kits for use in temporary learning spaces

To cover the anticipated needs of Tongan families affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami, UNICEF Pacific requires $1.2 million in immediate emergency funding. You can help.

Top photo: On January 15, 2022, a satellite image captures an explosive eruptions of the underwater Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano near the island nation of Tonga. © UNICEF/UN0578987/NOAA

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