Navy ships en route to Tonga as recovery efforts begin

By Te Ao - Māori News

Two Royal New Zealand Navy vessels are on their way to Tonga to assist the Pacific kingdom to recover from the weekend's volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami.

“Following the successful surveillance and reconnaissance flight of a New Zealand P-3K2 Orion on Monday, imagery and details have been sent to relevant authorities in Tonga, to aid in decisions about what support is most needed,” Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.

“However, the images show ashfall on the Nuku’alofa airport runway that must be cleared before a C-130 Hercules flight with humanitarian assistance can land.”

View from the Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion. photo/NZDF

The eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai has left Tonga effectively cut off from the rest of the world, with experts saying it could take two weeks to repair the submarine cable that links telecommunication connections to and from Tonga.

Mahuta and Defence Minister Peeni Henare said that led to the decision to send two naval vessels to Tonga.

"Communication issues caused by the eruption have made this disaster response particularly challenging. The delays mean we have taken the decision for both HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa to sail, so they can respond quickly if called upon by the Tongan government,” Mahuta said.

“HMNZS Wellington will be carrying hydrographic survey and diving teams, as well as an SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopter. HMNZS Aotearoa will carry bulk water supplies and humanitarian and disaster relief stores,” Henare said. 

Fresh drinkable water is a concern for the residents of Tonga, with current supplies running out. HMNZS Aotearoa can carry 250,000 litres and an onboard desalination plant can produce another 70,000 litres per day.

“The survey and diving teams are able to show changes to the seabed in the shipping channels and ports. They will also assess wharf infrastructure to assure the future delivery of aid and support from the sea,” Henare said.

The journey for both ships will take three days. They will return to New Zealand if not required.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft is on standby to deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief stores including collapsible water containers, generators and hygiene kits for families once the airport runway is cleared. The eruption left a thick layer of volcanic ash on the 2.6km airport at Nukualofa, which needs to be cleared before relief planes can land.

Air movements personnel stack and secure pallets of disaster relief supplies to be sent by Royal New Zealand Air Force to Tonga. photo/NZDF

"Other deployments are possible in the next few days, subject to Tongan government requests and permissions, and Covid-19 border rules,” Nanaia Mahuta said.

Tonga is free of Covid and operates strict border controls to keep it out. All current support is being delivered in a contactless way. Officials are in discussions over long-term options for support.

The New Zealand government has also allocated a further $500,000 in humanitarian assistance, taking this country's initial funding total to $1 million. 


Meanwhile, the United Nations coordinator in the Pacific, Jonathon Veitch, told RNZ he understands there are three people who have died as a result of the eruption and tsunami. Two have been confirmed, including a British woman, Angela Glover who lived in Nukualofa with her husband.

There are still large parts of the archipelago that have not yet been contacted but it is hoped the Tongan Navy will reach the outer islands shortly, including the Ha'apai group where a distress signal on Mango and Fonoi islands has been detected, and report back to Tongan officials.