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Underwater Volcano Erupts, Plunging Tonga Into Crisis

January 19, 2022

UNICEF is working with partners to rush emergency supplies to children and families in the remote island nation.

Late on the afternoon of January 15, 2022, an underwater volcano erupted violently in the South Pacific, sending up a high plume of ash and triggering tsunami waves that crashed ashore in coastal areas of Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, along with several other low-lying Tongan islands. 

The eruption of the underwater volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, is said to have been one of the biggest in the world in the past 30 years. James Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told NPR the blast was "around 10 megatons of TNT equivalent," making it more than 500 times as powerful as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. 

On January 15, 2022, a satellite image captured an explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano, located in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga. © UNICEF 2022

The majority of the remote island nation has been blanketed by volcanic ash, impacting safe water supply. Air quality is also a concern, along with the outbreak of waterborne diseases. The tsunami inundated coastal regions, leaving inland floodwaters and damaged infrastructure behind.

The exact impact of the volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami is still being assessed. Initial estimates indicate that 84 percent of the population of 105,000 have been affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami, while almost all (99 percent) are affected by the volcanic ash. Communications with Tonga as well as between Tongan islands remain a challenge; even satellite phones are working only intermittently.

Prepositioned UNICEF supplies are being shipped from warehouses in Australia and Fiji

UNICEF is mobilizing emergency supplies prepositioned in a humanitarian warehouse in Brisbane, Australia for immediate deployment to Tonga. Some 44 palettes of supplies will be loaded for shipment on the HMAS Adelaide of the Royal Australian Navy, including:

  • 1,000 water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and dignity kits for families, containing buckets, soap (laundry and handwashing), sanitary pads, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and collapsible jerry cans
  • 50 recreational kits for children, including balls, jump ropes, hacky sacks, writing supplies and board games

In Brisbane, Australia, UNICEF Pacific Ambassador Pita Taufatofua stands in front of pre-positioned emergency supplies to be sent to Tonga. © UNICEF/UN0579398/Taufatofua

Safe drinking water is an urgent concern. Chlorine testers and water purification tablets from UNICEF's Fiji stock are ready to be delivered once transport becomes available. Most Tongans depend on rainwater collected in tanks, many of which have been contaminated by volcanic ash. The current water system must be disinfected and rehabilitated in affected communities, schools and health care facilities.

Safe water supply and environmental cleanup are top priorities

Eighty church volunteers previously trained by UNICEF will provide psychological first aid and psychological support to traumatized children and their families. Child-Friendly Spaces will be set up where children can play safely. 

The central warehouse where vaccines are kept remains undamaged. Other supplies being readied for future delivery as needed include:

  • Emergency health kits with oral rehydration salts and basic medicines to treat waterborne diseases and infections, along with basic diagnostic equipment and medical supplies
  • Midwifery kits
  • Nutrition supplements including Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food to treat malnourished children under age 5
  • Early Childhood Development (ECD) kits for younger children, containing books, crayons, dominos and building blocks
  • Tents to accommodate makeshift clinics and temporary learning spaces  
  • School in a Box kits for use in temporary learning spaces

To cover the anticipated needs of Tongan families affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami, UNICEF Pacific requires $2.7 million in immediate emergency funding. You can help.

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Top photo: On January 15, 2022, a satellite image captures a massive eruption of the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano near the South Pacific island nation of Tonga. © UNICEF/UN0578987/NOAA