UN Coordinator in Tonga: “Resources on the ground are not enough” |


“The resources we have on the ground are not enough,” said Sione Hufanga, in an interview Saturday morning local time, with UN News. “We should always look at the situation and ask, have we done enough, for this tiny, isolated country in the Pacific Islands?”

The underwater volcanic eruption a week ago is considered the largest volcanic event in 30 years.

The massive 20km-high mushroom of smoke and ash and subsequent tsunami affected 84,000 people, more than 80% of the South Pacific country’s population.

In recent days, the Kingdom has started to receive humanitarian aid ships and, with the runway now clear of thick volcanic ash, the international airport is now open for flights with assistance.

Despite positive signs of recovery, Mr Hufanga warns that “the people of Tonga are still overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster”.

Only three people – so far – have lost their lives, but the specialist believes that this number gives a somewhat misleading sense of security.

Sometimes you can feel it’s not that bad based on the fatalities, but this number represents the resilience of the Tongan community in the face of such a disaster.“, he said.

Immediate needs

Speaking by mobile phone, with most communications with the outside world still suspended, he explained that “the main thing now is to serve the people who have been badly affected and need help with their basic needs in the next days”.

The UN is working with the government to finalize a needs assessment, which is expected to be completed next week and will guide the immediate response and relief efforts.

“Water, sanitation, hygiene, schools, are some of the things that will get life back to normal as quickly as possible, but there is still a lot of ash to be cleared from these premises,” he said. Mr Hufanga.

United Nations agencies are on the ground distributing dignity kits to those most affected, food support and trying to revive the agricultural sector.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with the Ministry of Health providing medical teams to Ha’apai, one of the most affected islands, and other agencies, such as the World Food Program (WFP), are cooperating to help restore communication services.

Long term impacts

For the UN specialist, the full extent of the problems is still unknown. He cites as examples the damage caused to the agricultural sector or to marine resources.

About 60-70% of herding households have seen their animals perish, their pastures damaged or their water supplies contaminated. And, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (CAM), the agricultural sector accounts for more than 65 percent of the country’s exports.

Fishing has also been significantly affected. The government has advised against fishing amid the ongoing contamination or consuming fish.

“These are medium and long-term impacts that remain to be understood,” Hufanga said.

For this reason, the specialist believes Tongans may have to rely on imported food for some time, something they have “never experienced before”.

Tonga did not expect that such a disaster could put us in this very, very difficult situation“, he says.

© UNICEF/Sarah Shotunde

Trucks are ready to leave Brisbane to deliver emergency aid and supplies to the Tonga Islands.

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