Aircraft delivering critical humanitarian supplies from Australia and New Zealand have begun arriving in tsunami-devastated Tonga. The South Pacific island reconnected with the rest of the world following five-day isolation.
On Thursday, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced that a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies and a sweeper to assist with removing ash from the airport runway had departed Brisbane, with another aircraft departing later that day.
New Zealand's Foreign Minister said that the country's air force also despatched a C-130 Hercules from Auckland to the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa.
"The aircraft is carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment," Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement.
Supplies will be delivered contactless, and the aircraft will remain on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand, she explained. Tonga is Covid-19-free and fears that humanitarian workers will transmit the virus.
Japan announced on Thursday that it would send aid to the region via the Japan International Cooperation Agency, including drinking water and equipment for removing volcanic ash.
Tonga on the verge of running out of drinking water
On Saturday, the explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano drove tsunami waves across the Pacific, severely damaging communities, resorts, and other structures in Tonga and knocking off communications for the nation of around 105,000 people.
Telephone services between Tonga and the rest of the world were restored late Wednesday. Still, full internet connectivity is expected to take at least a month, according to the archipelago's lone underwater communications cable owner.
Marian Kupu, a local journalist, said Tongans were clearing up all the dust following the volcanic eruption but were concerned about running out of drinking water.
"Each home has their own tanks of water supply but most of them are filled with dust so it's not safe for drinking," Kupu explained.
She said a few towns on Tonga's western coast were particularly hard impacted.
"I won't say we are expecting more deaths but as we are speaking the government is trying to fly to the other islands to check over them."
When asked if there were sufficient food supplies, she responded, "I can say maybe we can survive for the next few weeks but I'm not sure about water."
Meanwhile, Tongans living abroad hurriedly contacted family members to assure their safety.
"Today there's a sigh of relief as we are able to communicate with our loved ones back home," said John Pulu, a Tongan television and radio star living in Auckland.
"We are breathing and sleeping a little better," he explained.
According to the United Nations, the crisis has impacted around 84,000 people — more than 80 percent of the population.
"They have been affected through loss of houses, loss of communication, what we understand is the issue with the water," UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
The most critical humanitarian requirements, he said, are safe drinking water, food, and non-food items.
"Water is, without a doubt, the most life-saving problem. Water sources have been contaminated, and water systems have been shut off."
Tonga, one of the few remaining coronavirus-free countries, decided to take two of New Zealand's ships delivering help and supplies, despite fears about importing a Covid-19 epidemic that would exacerbate the situation.
Tongans have a vaccination rate of up to 90% against the virus.
The ships, carrying 250,000 liters of water and other supplies, arrive on Friday.
Around 65 kilometers from the Tongan capital, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted, with a boom 2,300 kilometers away in New Zealand.
Waves up to 49 feet high struck the outlying Ha'apai island group, smashing all dwellings on Mango and wreaking havoc on Tonga's largest island, Tongatapu, where 56 homes were demolished or severely damaged, the prime minister's office reported.