Updated 11:30pm (AEDT)
Wellington, New Zealand/Sydney, Australia
Reuters

More ships and aircraft carrying aid are due to arrive in Tonga in coming days as the international community responds to calls for urgent assistance from the Pacific island nation following a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Tonga humanitarian aid

Personnel wearing personal protection equipment, and a load of humanitarian relief supplies sent by New Zealand are seen next to an aircraft at Fua?amotu International Airport on the island of Tongatapu, Tonga, on 20th January, 2022 in this picture obtained from social media. PICTURE: New Zealand High Commission, Nuku'alofa Tonga/via Reuters.

CHURCHES CALL FOR PRAYER AFTER DISASTER

World church leaders have expressed their solidarity with the Tongan people after a volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami caused widespread damage in the island nation. 

In a letter to churches in Tonga dated Wednesday, Rev Prof Dr Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, assured  them of the "constant prayers of the worldwide ecumenical movement - we pray for you and we stand with you in solidarity amid this terrifying disaster".

"We pray for God's mercy on you, on the whole population, on the rescue workers and first responders at the scene and all whose lives are threatened by these events," he wrote. "We pray that God might guide the churches and the political bodies responding to the needs of the people as those needs change in the coming days. We pray that no more eruptions will happen in the next several days to weeks, and no tsunami may develop."

Dr Sauca added: "In the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges, we stand with you in solidarity and encourage you to not lose hope."

Meanwhile in comments published by the WCC, Rev James Bhagwan, general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, urged people to "please continue to pray for Tonga and our Pacific household of God in these challenging times of activity in the Pacific Ring of Fire, cyclone season, COVID-19, all continuing to be exacerbated by climate change".

Pope Francis also called on people to pray for Tonga during a general gudience on Wednesday.

“My thoughts go out to the peoples of the Tonga Islands who in recent days were affected by the eruption of an underwater volcano, which caused considerable material damage," he reportedly said. "I am spiritually close to all those who are sorely-tried, and I implore from God relief in their suffering. I invite everyone to join me in prayer for these our brothers and sisters.”

- DAVID ADAMS/Sight

The first flights from Australia and New Zealand landed in Tonga on Thursday with much-needed supplies of water for sanitation and hygiene as well as shelter, communication equipment and power generators. 

A New Zealand maritime sustainment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa carrying 250,000 litres of water and able to produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant, is expected to arrive in Tonga on Friday.

A second Australian aid flight had to turn back on Thursday due to in-flight issues and is now expected today, the Australian High Commission in Tonga said on Facebook.

More help is on the way with HMAS Adelaide en route from Brisbane and due in Tonga next week, it said.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted with a deafening explosion on Saturday, triggering tsunamis that destroyed villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.

Three people have been reported killed, authorities said.

Ash has blanketed the archipelago and spoiled much of its drinking water.

United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said in a briefing that Tonga has asked for urgent assistance and the agency is in close contact with the authorities.

"Assessment teams have reached most parts of the country, including remote and isolated islands," Dujarric said.

"We remain seriously concerned about access to safe water for 50,000 people throughout the country. Water quality testing continues, and most people are relying on bottled water," he said.



Some 60,000 people have been affected by damage to crops, livestock, and fisheries due to ashfall, saltwater intrusion and the potential for acid rain, Dujarric said.

AUSTRALIAN CHRISTIAN ORGANISATION PARTNERS WITH TONGAN CHURCHES TO PROVIDE LONG-TERM RECOVERY ASSISTANCE

Australian Christian aid organisation Act for Peace expects to spend between 12 and 18 months assisting Tongan churches recover from the destruction caused by the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai and the subsequent tsunami.

Geoff Robinson, senior manager for resilience and emergencies with AfP, said they are coordinating assistance through their partnership with the Tonga National Council of Churches.

“We’re fully expecting and preparing to provide resources to support the churches as the communities recover from this crisis," Robinson told Sight. "We understand from the brief information we have that there is a need for water and food, and in particular psycho-social support. It is one of the key areas that churches play a significant role in, in that pastoral care capacity.”

He said psycho-social support was a key feature of their work during recovery efforts following Tropical Cyclone Harold in 2020, but this disaster would have the added urgency of cleaning-up of volcanic ash, resupplying water and food supplies, providing immediate shelter and rebuilding infrastructure.

“We would expect that over the course of the next three to 12 months. We will work with supporting those church networks through the disaster chaplaincy network in Tonga and through the TNCC.”

With fears that COVID-19 could be brought into the affected Pacific islands, Robinson said if they can possibly avoid sending in teams to help with the recovery, they would do so, in a similar response to that after Tropical Cyclone Harold.

He said it would be 12 months at the earliest for some semblance of normality to return to Tonga, but he was “expecting that we will be preparing for a longer term program of support which would span 12-18 months as a minimum”.

“That would probably then cycle around into a preparedness phase as well,” he said.

This would involve building capacity to respond, adapt and recover when the next disaster occurs, and Robinson said their program had a specific area of concern for disability inclusion in preparedness.

- PETA MCCARTNEY/Sight

There are also reports of fuel shortages, he added.

Australia's foreign minister Marise Payne said on Friday cash donations to Tonga for immediate humanitarian supplies - Australia has donated $1 million - would need to be followed with more substantial support for rebuilding.

"The impact of this volcanic eruption and the subsequent tsunami and the damage the inundation is causing will be an ongoing challenge for Tonga, particularly in relation to infrastructure," she told Australian radio, adding that New Zealand and Fiji were also working closely with Tonga.

"There's a real communal effort"
Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, though restoring full internet services is likely to take a month or more, according to the owner of the archipelago's sole sub-sea communications cable. 

Tongans abroad were frantically calling families back home to ensure they were safe.

"It was very relieving to hear from them," said Fatafehi Fakafanua, the speaker of Tonga's legislative assembly, who was in New Zealand when the disaster struck, after making contact with his family.

The government had advised them to drink bottled water and wear masks outside because of the ash.

"There's a fine layer of, a blanket of ash, everywhere and I hear that the public are generally out on the streets trying to clean it up," Fakafanua added. "So there's a real communal effort...It's going to be a long, long, long road to recovery."

In a radio address, Tonga King Tupou VI urged courage and hard work for the rebuilding process.

The king also received a message of condolence on Thursday from a fellow monarch, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who said she was "shocked and saddened" by the devastation.

"It must be incredibly difficult for those who are unable to contact friends and family while communications are disrupted, and I hope that they will soon be restored," Elizabeth said.

The United Nations said that about 84,000 people – more than 80 per cent of the population - has been badly affected by the disaster with safe water "the biggest life‑saving issue".

The volcano erupted about 65 kilometres from the Tongan capital with a blast heard 2,300 kilometres away in New Zealand.

Waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the outer Ha'apai island group, destroying all houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, where 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Tongans have turned to social media to post images of the destruction by the tsunami and give accounts of their shock after the massive explosion.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has 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.

- With MICHELLE NICHOLS.