Why Tonga

The news of the volcano eruption and tsunami in Tonga caught immediately caught my attention, thinking of the full-scale humanitarian operation this would require to support the people of isolated Tonga:

  • Food, houses and water sources were seriously compromised following the disaster.
  • The ash rain following the eruption of the volcano ruined harvests.
  • Harvesting rainwater might not be safe for a while, due to the toxic ashes.
  • The groundwater from the wells would be mixed with seawater.

In short: access to water, food and many other things was going to be a big issue.

Why this type of work

Working in the early stages of emergencies means working full-time and intensely for a short period to support people in need. This is very energising for me. I love the speed of action suddenly possible in these situations. I also love working with very diverse and different people under very different circumstances.

So when DSS facilitated the opportunity for me to support UNICEF Pacific as WASH cluster coordinator for Tonga, I did not hesitate to travel to this group of Polynesian Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the world.

Image: Red Cross 

Troubles to get there

Getting to Tonga proved more difficult than expected due to COVID-19 arriving together with the first humanitarian support. The country went into total lockdown, while the very powerful volcano eruption had ruined the main cable for telephone and internet. So, communication, work permits and transport options were minimal.

More than a month after working remotely in night shifts with UNICEF colleagues in Tonga and Fiji, I finally boarded a so-called repatriation flight to Tonga. Together with 300 Tongans returning home after the Covid lockdown, and 10 other humanitarians.

Arriving in Tonga

6 weeks earlier, the eruption of the Hunga volcano in the middle of the ocean had resulted in a broken communication cable, wiping out all contact. A harsh ash rain affected water and other services, and a tsunami destroyed many of the houses and other infrastructures along the coastline.

We arrived at a flat, quiet, isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Everything was partly covered in black ashes. However, lush and green vegetation was already flourishing as the rainy season was still ongoing. Churches supported by national and international aid agencies supplied water to the households by restoring their rainwater harvesting facilities. Hence, most Tongan households had access to water.

Rainwater is the main source of water supply in Tongatapu. On the main island and the hundreds of outer islands forming the kingdom of Tonga. Some main islands also have access to groundwater. This had been affected by the tsunami but has mostly been restored. Navy ships from Australia and New Zealand supplied desalinated water to the outer islands during the repairs immediately after the HTHH Eruption and Tsunami.

Getting to work

UNICEF and many other organisations are supporting the Tongan Ministry of Health. They provide health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene programmes. I was there to support the coordination efforts of all the ministries and authorities. And the efforts of local and international aid agencies involved in the first response as well as the longer-term resilience, recovery and improvement plans for the Tongan water sector. We mapped all the different activities and connected all the different organisations, focussing on building back better.

The Ministry of Health was fully occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and working with UNICEF on the vaccination campaign. Hygiene materials were  in very high demand, and the ministry distributed these to the outer islands with the support of UNICEF and the Tongan Red Cross Society. In addition UNICEF, Save the Children, and many local agencies supported the Ministry of Education and Technology to re-open the schools.

Tonga is a country facing many challenges: climate change, rising sea levels, shorter rain periods,  obesity and drug trafficking. On top of this, Tonga’s economic situation is difficult because of the tourism block, the HTHH eruption and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This deployment has been a great opportunity to get a glimpse of the fascinating life in a unique ancient kingdom in the Pacific Ocean. A nation of 100.000 people spread over more than 150 islands, partly in ancient social structures, with nobles and landowners and many, many churches. Where people can eat the most delicious and healthy foods from the fertile land and seas.