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Tonga: International aid arrival hampered by COVID

January 21, 2022

An aid flight heading towards volcano-hit Tonga had to return to Australia after a crew member tested positive for COVID-19. This comes a day after the first shipment of aid arrived.

Tonga international aid
An Australian aircraft carrying humanitarian aid landed at Fua'amotu International Airport, TongaImage: Australian Department Of Defence/REUTERS

An Australian aid flight bound for Tonga was forced to return after a COVID-19 case was detected onboard, officials said on Friday. The South Pacific island nation, currently COVID-free, has a strict border control policy. 

The aid supplies were moved to another flight that took off on Friday, according to an Australian defense spokesperson.

The first shipment of relief supplies from Australia and New Zealand began arriving in Tonga on Thursday. To keep COVID-19 at bay, Tonga currently requires contactless delivery of aid. 

Saturday's eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano covered Tonga in a thick layer of ash and unleashed a tsunami that damaged buildings and resorts along the coastline. At least 3 people were killed. 

Wood and debris on the ground in Tonga
A tsunami tore apart areas on the coast of Tonga's main island Image: Consulate Of The Kingdom Of Tonga/ZUMA/picture alliance

Telephone communication was restored Wednesday, however, damage to the island's sole undersea internet cable will likely take a month or more to repair

Tongans have worked for days to clear the island's airport runway of ash to allow aid flights access. 

Water a priority 

Officials have said securing clean drinking water is a priority, as ash has contaminated Tonga's drinking water supply, according to the World Health Organization. 

A vessel carrying aid from New Zealand arrived Friday, carrying 250,000 litres of water.  The ship has the capacity to produce 70,000 litres per day with a desalination device. Ash has contaminated Tonga's water supply, according to the World Health Organization. 

An Australian aid vessel is expected to reach Tonga next week. Other aid supplies include emergency shelter, communication equipment and power generators.

International aid efforts mounted

United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric has said assessment teams have reached most parts of the country, including remote and isolated islands.

"We remain seriously concerned about access to safe water for 50,000 people throughout the country. Water quality testing continues, and most people are relying on bottled water," he added.

The UN added on Friday it was focused on getting aid to people of the island on a "no-contact delivery" basis to keep COVID infections away.

Jens Laerke, the spokesman for the office of the UN coordinating humanitarian efforts, said options included shipments from planes being unloaded by local crew and ships being offloaded by cranes while the crew stayed on board.

While Australia has donated $1 million for immediate humanitarian supplies, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Friday that cash donations will need to be followed by further support for rebuilding.

"The impact of this volcanic eruption and the subsequent tsunami and the damage the inundation is causing will be an ongoing challenge for Tonga, particularly in relation to infrastructure," she said.

see/wmr (AFP, Reuters)