Tonga runway cleared of volcanic ash, aid flights set to resume

A telecommunications blackout is further complicating the delivery of aid to the volcano-stricken island.

The main runway of the Fua'amotu International Airport is partially blocked due to volcanic ash.
The main runway of the Fua'amotu International Airport has been partially blocked due to volcanic ash from the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano. [Satellite Image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters]

Tonga has removed a thick coat of ash from an international runway, clearing the way for emergency aid, while an undersea telecommunications cable connecting the disaster-stricken nation to the world will take at least a month to fix.

UN crisis coordinator Jonathan Veitch told AFP the runway on the Pacific Kingdom’s main island, once buried in five to 10 cm of volcanic ash, was again operational.

It is “cleared but not in use yet” he said, adding that Tonga could receive much-stalled flights from Thursday.

For days, Australia and New Zealand have had military transport C-130 aircraft laden with supplies ready to go. But their departure had been repeatedly delayed due to the threat posed by ash particles to modern jet aircraft, including by melting and accumulating in the engines.

The overwhelmed Tongan government has called the eruption of the undersea volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai “an unprecedented disaster” and reported that waves as high as 15 metres destroyed almost every home on some outlying islands.

Two New Zealand navy vessels are bound to arrive in Tonga on Friday carrying critical water supplies. The World Health Organization has raised concern of air pollution and potential contamination of food and water supplies due to the ash and dust.

The Red Cross said its teams in Tonga had confirmed that salt water from the tsunami and volcanic ash were polluting the drinking water sources of tens of thousands of people.

“Water supplies across Tonga have been severely impacted by ashfall and saltwater from the tsunami,” Katie Greenwood, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said.

Greenwood added there was a “mounting risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea”.

The United Nations and aid agencies were also preparing relief flights to the Pacific island nation but without personnel who disembark, so to avoid introducing the coronavirus, Fiji-based UN co-ordinator Jonathan Veitch has said.

Tonga is one of the few countries free of COVID and an outbreak there would be disastrous, he added.

Communications blackout

Tsunami waves have caused extensive damage to three of Tonga’s smaller islands, including an undersea telecommunications cable.

A specialist ship will embark from Port Moresby on a repair voyage on the weekend, according to Samiuela Fonua, chairman of cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd.

But with up to nine days sailing to collect equipment in Samoa, he said it would be “lucky” if the job was done in a month.

International mobile phone network provider Digicel has established a 2G connection using a satellite dish, the New Zealand foreign ministry said, but it is patchy and amounts to about 10 percent of usual capacity.

Tongan communities abroad have posted images from families on Facebook, giving a glimpse of the devastation, with homes reduced to rubble, fallen trees, cracked roads and sidewalks and everything coated in grey ash.

The communications blackout is further complicating relief efforts and underscoring the vulnerability of the subsea fibre-optic cables that have become the backbone of global telecoms.

The $34m Asian Development Bank and World Bank-funded cable was finished in 2018 and boosted Tonga’s net speeds more than 30-fold, but is almost its sole link to the world.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday that Tonga is negotiating with Kacific, which has a satellite above the archipelago, to access a satellite internet connection.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies