Drinking water the priority in Tonga: govt

Kirsty Needham and Praveen Menon |

Water and humanitarian supplied are being delivered to Tonga amid concerns about COVID-19.
Water and humanitarian supplied are being delivered to Tonga amid concerns about COVID-19.

Tongans have queued for limited money services that have been restored in the Pacific island’s capital, as the clean-up continued a week after a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Tonga’s government said drinking water was the priority, and a national emergency team had already distributed 60,000 litres to residents. 

A desalination plant on a New Zealand naval ship that arrived on Friday, capable of producing 70,000 litres a day, has started drawing seawater from Tonga’s harbour.

Residents who had lost homes on outlying islands when a tsunami reaching up to 15 metres crashed over the South Pacific archipelago would be relocated to the main island, Tongatapu, because of water and food shortages, the Tongan prime minister’s office said in a statement distributed to Tongan officials.

Volcanic fallout on the surface of the ocean was damaging boats and making marine transport between the islands challenging, and domestic flights were suspended, it said.

Ash fall and the tsunami had affected 84 per cent of the population, and inter-island communications remain an “acute challenge” with limited satellite and radio links, it said.

Burials were held earlier in the week for a Tongan man and a woman who had died when the tsunami hit the outlying Ha’apai islands. 

The official death toll is three. A field hospital has been set up on Nomuka Island after the health centre there was swept away.

Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau, the coordinator for the project to rebuild Tonga’s parliament, said the restoration of international money transfer services, for limited hours on Saturday, was important for people to be able to buy essential goods.

“Tongans have demonstrated their resilience in this calamity and will get back on their feet,” he said, speaking to Reuters from Tongatapu.

More naval vessels from Australia, New Zealand and Britain are en-route to Tonga to deliver aid, as defence flights continue to arrive from Australia and New Zealand.

The Tongan government has implemented a strict COVID-19 policy that means people, including aid workers, cannot enter the country unless they have undergone a three-week isolation period. 

Aid deliveries have been contactless, and one Australian aircraft returned to Brisbane mid-flight on Thursday after being notified of a virus case among the crew.

Aid deliveries expected from Japan and China would also be contactless to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government said.

An Australian navy vessel, HMAS Adelaide, was expected to arrive in Tonga on Wednesday with more bulk water and a 40-bed field hospital.

The Tongan government was doing “an extraordinary job on the ground”, he said.

The Tongan government said it is “deeply appreciative to the international community” for its assistance, which included $US8 million ($A11 million) in funding from the World Bank and $US10 million ($A14 million) from the Asia Development Bank.