- New Zealand navy ships to arrive in Tonga on Friday
- Airport could re-open on Thursday
- Australian PM speaks to Tongan counterpart
- U.N. planning remote relief operations
Jan 19 (Reuters) – Two New Zealand navy vessels will arrive in Tonga on Friday carrying critical water supplies for the Pacific island nation reeling from a volcanic eruption and tsunami and largely cut off from the outside world.
(Graphic: A shockwave from the South Pacific)
Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands have been destroyed, with at least three deaths after Saturday’s huge eruption triggered tsunami waves that rolled over the islands, causing what the government calls an unprecedented disaster.
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With the nation’s airport smothered by volcanic ash and communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of devastation has come mostly from reconnaissance aircraft.
The Red Cross said its teams in Tonga had confirmed that salt water from the tsunami and volcanic ash were polluting the drinking water sources of tens of thousands of people.
“Securing access to safe drinking water is a critical immediate priority … as there is a mounting risk of diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoea,” Katie Greenwood, a Pacific official of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a blast heard 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean.
James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the force of the eruption was estimated to be the equivalent of five to 10 megatons of TNT, or more than 500 times that of the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima at the end of World War Two.
New Zealand’s foreign ministry said Tonga had approved the arrival of its ships, the Aotearoa and the Wellington, in the COVID-free nation, where concerns about a potential coronavirus outbreak are likely to complicate relief efforts.
Simon Griffiths, captain of the Aotearoa, said his ship was carrying 250,000 litres of water, and had the capacity to produce another 70,000 litres a day, along with other supplies.
“For the people of Tonga, we’re heading their way now with a whole lot of water,” Griffiths said in a statement.
The Polynesian archipelago of 176 islands, 36 of them inhabited, has a population of about 105,000. Its Fua’amotu International Airport was not damaged by the tsunami but it was covered in ash, which has had to be cleared manually.
Aid flights from New Zealand and Australia could begin on Thursday, a Tongan official said, depending on the clear-up.