1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Tonga and its natural disaster risks

January 17, 2022

Tonga seized headlines when it was hit by a tsunami wave triggered by an underwater volcano. The South Pacific island nation is no stranger to natural disasters. Here are five facts to better understand the region.

Satellite image of eruption of underwater volcano Tonga
A satellite image shows the eruption of the underwater volcano on January 15Image: Japan Meteorolog/AP/picture alliance

Where is Tonga?

Tonga belongs to the Pacific island region of Polynesia and is located east of Fiji, south of Samoa and north of New Zealand. The archipelago, formerly known as the Friendship Islands, belongs to the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volcanic belt around the Pacific Rim. The island nation, with a total area of 747 square kilometers (288.4 square miles), is made up of 172 islets, 36 of which are inhabited. The tropical climate on Tonga is roughly divided into two seasons, a hot and humid phase from December to April and a rainy season from May through November.

Who lives in Tonga?

About 105,000 people live on the archipelago's 36 inhabited islands. Ninety-seven percent of the population is Polynesian, 3% are Chinese, European and residents of other Pacific islands, according to a 2016 census. With an average age of 24 years, the population is young. In comparison, the average age in Australia is 38, and 44 in Germany.

Why does Tonga have so many earthquakes?

Earthquakes and tsunamis occur repeatedly along the 40,000-kilometer-long Pacific Ring of Fire. The 2021 World Risk Report by Bündnis Entwicklung hilft, an alliance of nine German development and relief organizations, ranks Tonga third among the countries with the highest risk of an extreme natural event turning into a disaster. Tonga faces an average of 1-3 tropical cyclones a year. It also records relatively high numbers of earthquakes.

Tonga billowing ashes from volcanic eruption
The volcanic eruption spewed ashes into the skyImage: Tonga Geological Services/REUTERS

On February 13, 2010, Tonga was shaken by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Two days later, a cyclone swept across the islands with wind speeds of up to 228 kilometers per hour (137 mph).

On January 11, 2014, a hurricane devastated the archipelago, in particular the Ha'apai islands with the main island, Lifuka. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, an underground volcanothat is active from time to time, erupted again on January 15, 2022, triggering a seaquake.

Rising sea levels triggered by global climate change and a rise in the number of hurricanes, floods and rains are among the country's most important environmental problems. According to the World Bank's Climate Portal, extreme weather events will continue to intensify in the coming decades.

What kind of an economy does Tonga have?

The World Bank ranks Tonga as a lower middle income country (MIC). MICs are countries with a national per capita income of between $1,036 and $12,535 per year.

The country's economy faces a crisis: Tourism, the country's second most important source of foreign currency income, all but ground to a halt in the coronavirus pandemic, with its strict entry bans. The country's agriculture sector, which is highly developed and accounts for nearly one-fifth of the gross domestic product, is subject to weather events and fluctuating world market prices. The most important export goods currently include vanilla and fish.

The country's No. 1 source of income, however, is remittances from Tongans working abroad, in particular in New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia. Money sent from Tongans working overseas increased from $102 million (€ 89.4)  to $142 million between 2014 and 2020, according to The Global Economy platform.

Who governs Tonga?

Tonga has been a hereditary constitutional monarchy since 1875. It became independent from Britain in 1970. In November 2010, the majority of members of parliament were elected by direct popular vote for the first time. Since December 15, 2021, the country has been  led by a new government under Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, elected by parliament and officially appointed by King Tupou VI.

Children up to the age of 12 are required to go to school, fees for secondary schools are low, and scholarships are available for further education abroad. The literacy rate is 98%.  Together, Tonga and 11 other island states run the University of the South Pacific.

Germany and Tonga signed a "perpetual friendship treaty" in 1876 under King George Tupou I, renewed by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1977. Tonga is an independent member of the Commonwealth and has been a member of the United Nations since 1999.

This article has been translated from German.