On January 15, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano violently erupted, spewing ash and causing a tsunami which hit islands across Tonga. Food and water supplies and air quality have been affected across majority of the country and communication lines were interrupted for days. Here, Unicef speaks to children on the island of Tongatapu about their experience.
Speaking of her experience during the eruption and tsunami, 10-year-old Ma’ata Finau told Unicef: “The time when I heard it, we were all in our house. That’s the time I heard the explosion of the tsunami. It was like something happened to our ears. [I got] scared.
“Then there was a lot of people driving down the road, but they didn’t say anything to us. There was one man who was driving on the road and yelled for us to run because the sea is already as high as the coconut tree. So, we didn’t grab anything. We dropped everything and jumped in the car and drove off. And as we drove off the clouds darkened. We went to Tokomololo.”
Tonga’s population is spread across 36 of Tonga’s 169 islands, but about 70 per cent live on this main island. The capital, Nukuʻalofa, sits on the Tongatapu island’s north coast and along the Fanga’uta Lagoon.
The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano eruption on January 15 caught on camera.
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Following weeks of volcanic activity emitting ash, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano in Tonga erupted violently on January 15, 2022, with satellite imagery indicating a 5km-wide plume of ash, steam, and gas, rising approximately 20km above the volcano.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, sits 40 about 65km north of the capital, Nuku’alofa and about 30km southeast of Tonga’s Fonuafo’ou island. It sits underwater between two small islands at about 2000 metres high from the sea floor, with about 100m visible above sea level. Within minutes, the volcanic eruption caused a tsunami on Tonga’s largest island, Tongatapu, with waves recorded at 1.2m near Nuku’alofa city flowing onto coastal roads and flooding properties.
Many of Tonga’s islands are low-lying with only minimum elevation. Tsunami warnings were also issued for Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Australia, and New Zealand. The majority of the country has been impacted by a 1-2cm layer of volcanic ash, which is affecting water and food supplies, and negatively impacting air quality. In the coming days, access to clean water supply will be an immediate priority.
Communication lines had been interrupted since January 15, making it difficult to get information on the extent of the damage.
Unicef is ready to work together with the Government of Tonga and its partners to ensure urgent life-saving support is provided to families and children in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption and tsunami. Once the needs are confirmed by the Government of Tonga, Unicef is ready to transport its pre-positioned emergency supplies from Fiji and Brisbane warehouses. These include essential water, sanitation, and hygiene kits, water containers and buckets, water field test kits, tarpaulins, recreational kits, and tents, that can be immediately mobilised for distribution.
The immediate response efforts on the ground include providing clean water, and emergency health supplies for children and families affected. Additionally, psychosocial support will be essential for improving the well-being of parents and children affected by the tsunami.
Unicef will be working with its partners to ensure parents and children affected by the emergency are provided with the psychosocial support they need. With borders closed in Tonga due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Unicef will work with the government and its partners on the ground to reach children and families with the support they urgently need.
Semisi Fataua, 15, had been away from home when the eruption happened.
“That evening we went to gather some root crops for school sabbath (for the following day),” he told Unicef.
“We were in the village of Kolovai when the first explosion from the eruption happened. So, I told my uncle for us to return. But then the second explosion was larger, and the owner of the resort ran down yelling a tsunami is coming.
“After [the tsunami passed] we came down and I saw that the waves came and damaged the house. Big trees and branches were pushed inside the yard.”
Saia Monu, 15 said he’d been at home when the eruption happened, “I was at home playing video games when I heard the explosion and I got very scared.
“There were trees [from the tsunami] in the house that damaged it a lot. I was worried and scared to hurry up and leave. So, we ran for safety. It was me, my grandmother and aunt. All my brothers were already in town [Nuku’alofa] with the two younger ones.
“It was just us who had to run for safety.”
Nine-year-old Ana Fatai Na’a told Unicef, “I felt sad that the sea overflowed.
“While it was happening, I was scared, and I am still sad, but it is slowly getting better. We sought safety in Tofoa [village] … to Villa then we went to Tofoa.”
Moui-He-Kelesi, 15, said she was scared hearing the explosion and ran to mother for comfort.
“When I heard the explosion from the eruption, I felt scared. I cried as I was running, and I was trying to hold onto my mum.
“The ash rained down onto the road when we were driving, and it was hard to see out the windows. We kept having to stop so my brother could wipe the ash off the windscreen.
“When we returned home, our fence was destroyed, the dishes in the house were all broken, and there were no clothes because the tsunami had taken it all.”
This article was supplied as part of Stuff’s partnership with Unicef NZ. Unicef stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. Find out more at unicef.org.nz.