Tongans Dig Deep as Island Nation Recovers from Volcano’s Blast

February 27, 2022

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano left of a trail of destruction, affecting some 85,000 people.

In times of crises, most people are all only too well aware that support and money is most welcome and most needed.

That has been the case with Tonga, a country rocked by a devastating volcanic blast in January. Australian and New Zealand aid flights were quickly established to deliver urgent humanitarian supplies and offers from support came from other organizations and countries.

It’s also evident that Tongan people living abroad have been quick to reach into their own pockets to help family and friends at home. Millions of dollars in remittances have flowed from Australia and New Zealand to Tonga since the events of January 15.

As the archipelago begins to recover, figures from the Tonga Development Bank (TDB) show its digital remittance service has already funneled more than $AUD2.7 million to Tongans from Australia and New Zealand alone since the beginning of the year, much of it coming in the past three weeks. With the eruption and tsunami that followed having affected some 85,000 people, according to a World Bank assessment, the flow of funds is expected to provide a vital financial lifeline.

The development comes as more harrowing stories emerge of the events of that day in January when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a blast 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

TDB Chief Executive Leta Havea Kami recalls she was outside her house when the sky went dark. “We looked up and the blue sky was quickly disappearing as big billows of white clouds spread slowly across the sky. At the same time, there were explosions like thunderclaps and then several cannon-like shots firing,” said Kami.

“The house shook and the rafters, windows, doors were rattling,” she said. "The children were crying and holding their hands to their ears. I could feel my ears ringing and couldn’t hear anything for a minute or so. I just gathered the children, held them and told them to pray.” 

“It rained wet muddy ash all night, we couldn’t sleep. The power went out, but we stayed awake by candlelight, still hearing muffled rumblings from the volcano.  The next morning, we had to push open the door against thick blackish-grey ash covering the ground,” said Kami.

“We are simply grateful to be alive. It was a very scary experience.”

The eruption, tsunami and ashfall caused an estimated US$90.4M in damages, according to the World Bank. The destruction across the Kingdom of Tonga all but cut its people off from the rest of the world.

For family and friends outside Tonga, their fears were compounded by being unable to reach loved ones. The explosion also ripped apart the deep-sea internet cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world with the disruption in communications also affecting a much-relied-upon financial lifeline for Tongans—remittances, which in 2021 were worth an estimated 43.9 percent of Tonga’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Last year, Tonga was the biggest recipient of remittances in the world as a percentage of GDP. The money sent home by Tongans working abroad is  a vital financial boost for Tongans in the best of times, helping pay for groceries and medicine and even being using to start or support small businesses, in turn creating jobs and driving economic activity.

Knowing so many Tongans would be in desperate need of financial support, TDB moved quickly in the immediate aftermath of the volcanic eruption to restore its remittance service, ‘Ave Pa’anga Pau, with the help of satellite communications assistance from the Australian Government.

“We were the first remittance service to be up and running,” said TDB’s Kami. “We had to make sure we could move people’s money, to help families who are struggling from hardship, whose homes have been destroyed. This money is vital. Some people have been forced to relocate to evacuation centers.”

‘Ave Pa’anga Pau was developed by IFC and TDB with support from the World Bank, and the governments of Australia and New Zealand. It carries a significantly lower cost than many other money transfer services.

Since the beginning of the year, more than $2.74 million has been sent to Tongans via ‘Ave Pa’anga Pau from Australia and New Zealand. , with about 40 percent of that coming in the past three weeks. In the period immediately after the eruption, remittances sent from Australia via ‘Ave Pa’anga Pau increased by four times compared to the previous year.

“With remittances a key source of income at this time of emergency, ‘Ave Pa’anga Pau has been a vital conduit for much-needed funds, which had already seen significant growth during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sydney-based IFC Operations Officer Philippa Roberts, who worked with TDB to deliver ‘Ave Pa’anga Pau.

“The experience of the past few weeks, and indeed during the pandemic, has also underscored the potential for similar services to be adopted by other Pacific nations and in regions around the world,” said Roberts.

The World Bank assessment, prepared for the Government Tonga, found around 600 structures in total, including at least 300 residential buildings, were damaged or destroyed by tsunami waves. A TDB branch was among the buildings destroyed.

Tourism businesses, already reeling from the loss of business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have been particularly hard hit with accommodation, wharves and worker’s homes destroyed or severely damaged.

Tonga’s agricultural sector was also significantly impacted with 85 percent of agricultural households nationwide affected to some extent, and an estimated US$20.9M of damage to this sector; including crops lost, and damage to shallow reef fisheries. There has been an estimated US$20.9M in damage to infrastructure, including roads, causeways, power supply, ports and water supply infrastructure as well as the submarine cable.

The devastation caused by the eruption and tsunami has been compounded by a recent outbreak of COVID-19, in a nation that had remained largely COVID free.

“Tonga is a resilient nation and will overcome this devastating event. We are ready to help and support our friends and partners there as they rebuild,” said Deva De Silva, Resident Representative for Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu. “Our work to help create jobs and opportunities, in partnership with the governments of Australia and New Zealand, is now even more crucial.”