Aid flights touch down in devastated Tonga

Dominic Giannini and Andrew Brown |

Australian and New Zealand planes carrying humanitarian aid have landed in Tonga after volcanic ash was cleared from an airport runway.

The C-17 plane left Australia on Thursday morning carrying shelter, hygiene kits, equipment for people clearing ash and water containers. 

A Royal NZ Air Force C-130 Hercules is carrying aid supplies including water, temporary shelters, generators and communications equipment.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the planes are delivering equipment to help rebuild Tonga’s communication network after a vital underwater cable was damaged during the submarine volcano eruption which sparked a tsunami.

“We are working closely with Tonga and listening to their needs and their requests,” Mr Dutton told 2GB on Thursday. 

The HMAS Adelaide is also ready to be deployed from Brisbane, loaded with humanitarian and disaster relief supplies, along with critical equipment to help recovery efforts.

Three Chinook helicopters have also been loaded onto the ship.

It’s expected the voyage to Tonga will take five days, and the ship will serve as a base for relief work.

Australia’s high commissioner to Tonga has described the damage from a tsunami in the Pacific nation as catastrophic, as more disaster relief supplies arrive.

Rachael Moore said the volcanic eruption and tsunami led to large numbers of buildings being wiped out on small islands.

“Through the region, these places are devastated, they’re described as a moonscape,” she told ABC Radio on Thursday.

“We’ve seen reporting of zero houses remaining on some of the small islands and along the western beaches. There’s a moonscape where there were once beautiful resorts and many, many homes.”

Ms Moore said freshwater contamination in the country following the tsunami had caused significant issues.

“Water is an extremely high priority here and it’s something the government is working on, and development partners here are working closely with them on ensuring that they have what they need,” she said.

Phone communications have been restored in Tonga after several days of limited access, allowing residents to contact family abroad.

Internet connections will take longer to restore after an underwater cable was severed, with its repair expected to take several weeks.

Complicating matters are Tonga’s pandemic border measures, which have kept the Pacific nation COVID-free.

Disaster relief efforts are expected to be led by locals on the ground to avoid a spread of virus cases on top of the tsunami damage.

The offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington is due to arrive on Thursday carrying a helicopter as well as mapping and diving personnel.

Support vessel HMNZS Aotearoa is expected to arrive on Friday with bulk water supplies. It can carry 250,000 litres, and is able to produce 70,000 litres per day a through a desalination plant.

The HMNZS Canterbury is planning to leave on Saturday with two NH90 helicopters on board.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke with Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni on Wednesday, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke with her Tongan counterpart Fekita Utoikamanu on Thursday.