In Brief

Tonga’s tsunami: the aid effort turns political

Efforts to help Tonga’s 105,000 residents have been beset by problems

The eruption of Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano on 15 January could be heard 5,800 miles away in Alaska, said Loop Tonga (Nuku’alofa).

It is thought to be the world’s biggest such event in 30 years: the blast spewed an ash plume 12 miles above the South Pacific archipelago, creating an ash umbrella 150 miles in diameter that blotted out the Sun, covering cars, roads and buildings in a film of residue.

The eruption also triggered a tsunami that had “a devastating impact” on some coastal areas and low-lying islands, said Matangi Tonga (Nuku’alofa). On Mango Island, “all houses were destroyed”. The confirmed death toll in Tonga is so far only three, including a British national, Angela Glover. One man, Lisala Folau, survived by swimming for 27 hours after being swept away by waves. But water supplies have been contaminated and infrastructure damaged; concerns over the fate of the outlying islands remain.

Efforts to help Tonga’s 105,000 residents have been beset by problems, said Nick Perry in The Sydney Morning Herald. The single underwater cable on which the country relies for communications was ruptured; the ash cloud stopped planes carrying aid landing for days.

Fortunately, aid has now begun to arrive on ships and planes from Australia and New Zealand; but there are fears aid workers could bring Covid to the virus-free nation: last week, an Australian plane was turned back when a case was detected on board.

Tongans’ fears are “an echo of past trauma”, said Damien Cave in The New York Times. In the century after Captain Cook reached the region in the 1770s, Tonga faced imported epidemics of measles, dysentery and influenza. One measles outbreak in the early 19th century killed up to a quarter of its population. Inevitably, the virus is still “viewed through the lens” of past experience.

The aid effort has become something of a “geostrategic” tussle, said Michael Field in Nikkei Asia (Tokyo). Australia, New Zealand, the US and China are all offering aid. China’s influence in Tonga has been growing: Beijing awarded a US $108m loan (worth 25% of Tonga’s GDP) to rebuild after major riots in 2006 – a debt it has refused to write off.

China – which already has an “unexpectedly large” embassy in Tonga – senses a chance to bring a key South Pacific outpost under its influence; it is pushing for state-backed firm Huawei to bag a role repairing communications infrastructure. Beijing clearly has other motives here than its own “sense of humanitarianism”.

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