Tonga’s Volcanic Eruption: Tensions are Brewing Beneath the Surface

As featured in Edition 40, available here.


BY LIM SHU YU (1st year - Philosophy, Politics, and Economics - Singapore)



The volcano Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai erupted on January 15th, just 65 kilometres from Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital. The eruption sent a plume of ash soaring into the upper atmosphere, and triggered a tsunami that destroyed hundreds of homes on Tonga’s nearby islands, with at least 3 people perishing as a result of the eruption.


This eruption has been a disaster for the country's more than 100,000 residents, decimating everything in its vicinity in a short span of 11 hours.


Tongans are now labouring to clear the heavy layer of ash that has buried everything, restore clean drinking water, and recoup from crop loss, which is estimated to be worth about 39 million Tongan pa'anga (US $17 million).


Australia, New Zealand, and the UK have been quick to respond, using their air-force and naval carriers to make contactless drops of supplies including water, food, hygiene kits, and tents, as well as water-treating and telecommunications repair equipment.


Despite the swiftness of foreign aid to help on the ground, local authorities have treated the aid with great precaution. Tonga has requested for no foreign humanitarian workers to land in the nation to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All assistance work is currently done by locals through organisations such as the Red Cross. This approach reveals the careful considerations Tonga has put into its volcano-recovery contingency plan.


Is this just Tonga heaping Pelion upon Ossa, or is this warranted prudence?


This cautiousness has made recovery slower and much more inefficient. Given the scale of the damage, this is worrying for international organisations providing aid. Considering Tonga’s sprawling archipelago, the devastation has destroyed transportation routes, making it significantly harder for aid to reach far-flung regions. Tonga’s halting acceptance of aid might turn out to do more harm than good: They are treading in dangerous waters.


Whilst Tonga battles the aftermath of the eruption and the tsunami, it must do its best to circumvent the impending wave - a tsunami of COVID-19. Tonga is experiencing its first rush of cases following the arrival of relief ships from neighbouring countries, an alarming issue, as only 60% of Tonga’s population is fully vaccinated. Any future infections may proliferate beyond the government’s control, causing an epidemic in a place where education and healthcare are not readily available to combat such a health crisis. This might be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.


Additionally, communication with the global community has been severely hampered by damage to the remote archipelago’s sole fibre-optic undersea cable, hindering recovery. With limited transport and manpower being ferried into the Polynesian kingdom, it is nearly impossible to expect restoration efforts to be completed within a week, as is being claimed by the nation.


By transferring the brunt of the blame onto the volcanic eruption, Tonga is able to deflect castigations, depoliticize the narrative, and, at the same time, garner international sympathy and aid. Many articles have claimed the blast event of the eruption as a “once in a millennium” event, alluding that Tonga could not have foreseen and mitigated the devastating impacts. However, this is a misrepresentation of the matter at hand.


Even if the volcanic eruption was not of such a great magnitude, Tonga would not have been able to cope with its aftermath. The country did not give out volcanic eruption alerts even though there had been clear signs something was wrong. Additionally, Tongans were unprepared to handle an eruption. The country’s gross oversight is anachronistic, considering its high susceptibility to natural disasters due to its non-ideal geographical location.


Tonga’s volcanic eruption might reflect the insufficiencies of current volcanological reports. On scientific grounds, volcanologists are seeking to improve their research methodologies to better predict other geological disasters. However, it should not overshadow the government’s lack of preparedness and allow the Tongan government to deflect responsibility. More is expected of the government, yet it continues to remain silent as Tonga drags its feet through recovery.


As the region continues to be shaken by earthquakes, Tonga still needs to keep its guard up. According to preliminary investigations of ash from January 15th, the eruption was fuelled by a new batch of magma emerging from deep under the Earth. Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai could be active for a long time, with unknown consequences for Tonga's inhabitants.


Is trouble brewing under the surface, or will this be the last undersea eruption Tonga will see in the foreseeable future?


Tonga Geological Services is receiving information from a group of worldwide experts to decide their next step. The experts are considering three scenarios where the eruption might either cease, continue at a low level, or another massive blast could occur.


All eyes are on Tonga as it scrambles to salvage whatever remains.



Image - Unsplash (Yosh Ginsu)