New photos show the world the damage inflicted on Tonga after a nearby volcano erupted under the sea, triggering waves ‘up to 15m high’.
Tonga’s officials say some of the country’s islands were badly hit by a tsunami, with at least three people killed by the impacts of the volcanic eruption.
The archipelago now faces a new threat of contaminated drinking water because of salt water and volcanic ash polluting supplies.
Meanwhile international telephone connectivity has been restored to the islands, telecom operator Digicell said on Wednesday evening.
However Tonga remains largely offline after the volcano damaged its sole undersea fibre-optic communication cable. Its owner said it would probably take a month or more to fix.
Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands were destroyed and images released by Tonga’s consulate in the EU show the Pacific islands blanketed in a layer of ash.
The Tonga prime minister’s office said waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the outer Ha’apia island group, destroying all the houses on the island of Mango.
Also impacted was the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, where 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged.
The archipelago has 176 islands, 36 of them inhabited and is home to 105,000 people.
Its main airport, Fua’amotu International, was not damaged by the tsunami but was covered in ash, which has had to be cleared by hand.
With Tonga’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.
In the aftermath of the natural disaster, a new threat has emerged with the Red Cross warning that salt water from the tsunami and volcanic ash were polluting the drinking water 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,” said Katie Greenwood of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted about 65km from the Tongan capital with a blast heard 2300km away in New Zealand, and sent tsunamis across the Pacific Ocean.
James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, 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 II.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said two Hercules aircraft were ready to go with humanitarian supplies and telecommunications equipment, and that a naval ship, the Adelaide, was preparing to depart from Brisbane with water purification equipment and additional humanitarian supplies.
As well as emergency supplies, Australia and New Zealand have promised immediate financial assistance.
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.
New Zealand said Tonga, one of the few countries to be free of the new coronavirus, had agreed to receive two of its ships, the Aotearoa and the Wellington, despite concerns about importing a COVID-19 outbreak that would exacerbate its crisis.
Simon Griffiths, captain of the Aotearoa, said his ship was carrying 250,000 litres of water, along with other supplies, and had the capacity to produce another 70,000 litres a day.
The US Agency for International Development approved $US100,000 in immediate assistance, and Japan said it would give more than $US1 million in aid as well as drinking water and equipment to clear ash.
The Asian Development Bank was discussing with Tonga whether it would declare a state of emergency to draw on a $US10-million disaster facility.
China said it would send help including water and food when the airport opened.