Tonga’s eruption should come as a wake-up call - GulfToday

Tonga’s eruption should come as a wake-up call

A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano before its main eruption. Reuters

A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano before its main eruption. Reuters

The far-flung archipelago kingdom, Tonga, found itself stranded after the eruption of an underwater volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, on Saturday (January 15)and the islands were blanketed under ash spewed by the volcano, and the tsunami wave the eruption triggered, which reached the distant shore of Peru and the United States, caused extensive damage to the islands.

Tonga, a group of 100 islands, whose nearest neighbour, Fiji, is 466 miles away, was cut off from the world as its undersea cable which connected it through Internet, broke at least at two points. The cable repair company says it will take four weeks to carry out repairs and restore connectivity. A relief ship from New Zealand, carrying drinking water, will reach Tonga on Friday. The rest of the world could not know the extent of the damage done, and the people on the islands could not contact their relatives staying abroad. It seems indeed strange that in the 21st century, no relief could be rushed to this corner of south Pacific because no plane could land as the runway at the international airport of the capital city, Nuku’alofa, was covered with volcanic ash. And even satellite images were blurred due to the cloud of volcanic dust hovering over the islands. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the Pacific based in Fiji is preparing to send relief, but it will take time.

There is also the further complication that Tonga has been a zero-Covid area, and the entry of relief workers into the country would cause problems. The United Nations coordinator in Fiji Jonathan Veitch said, “Tonga has a strict Covid-free policy – they’re one of the few countries in the world that has remained Covid-free. We won’t be doing anything to threaten the safety of their protocols and the safety of their population in terms of Covid-19 because that would cause a lot more difficulties than we already have.” The relief materials are expected to be delivered remotely. The New Zealand naval relief ship, HMNS Aotearoa, is carrying 250,000 litres of drinking water. Tonga is facing an acute shortage of drinking water.

The disaster itself was of high magnitude as stated by the Tonga government. It said, “As a result of the eruption, a volcanic mushroom plume was released reaching the stratosphere and extending radially covering all Tonga islands, generating tsunami waves rising up to 15 metres (49 feet), hitting the west coasts of Tongatapu Islands, ‘Eua and Ha’apai Islands.”

Geological experts of Australia fear that there could be further volcanic eruptions, and this was not an isolated event. Many of the islands of the Tonga archipelago have been shaped by volcanic activity. While some of the islands have been formed by volcanic eruptions, other islands have sunk as reappeared as well. Quite clearly, the volcanic activity has not been mapped and monitored fully in this part of the world, and it is not hard to guess because the countries with the scientific and research institutions are not interested in probing this area.

Though the UN, the Red Cross, Australia and New Zealand are getting into the act of sending relief, the remote island-nation and others like it, scattered across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, raise the issue of how much globally networked the modern world is. Before the eruption, Tonga was connected to the rest of the world through the undersea cable network which helped in offering the Internet and mobile phone services. But once the network got ruptured because of the volcanic eruption, the connection was cut off.

The cable network owners are suggesting that there should be more than one cable connection so that if one of them breaks down, the other can work. What is evident is that much needs to done to knit the world together through modern technology so that in times of emergency people and nations are not marooned as Tonga was.

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