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Tongan Disaster Relief And Recovery – Expert Reaction


Governments and aid agencies are preparing to offer support to Tonga following the weekend’s violent undersea volcano eruption and subsequent tsunami.

Pictures from a New Zealand Defense Force surveillance flight show Tongan islands covered in ash, but the full extent of the damage remains unclear. The country continues to experience a communications blackout.

The SMC asked experts to comment on natural disaster recovery planning and processes – as well as the potential health impacts of the volcanic ashfall.

Associate Professor Siautu Alefaio, Doctor Maureen Mooney, Professor David Johnston and Associate Professor Julia Becker, School of Psychology, Massey University, comment:

“Emerging impacts from the tsunami and volcanic eruption will include impacts to physical and mental health, exacerbation of disparities, secondary impacts, and negative economic consequences. These recent events are nested in the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and climate change.

“Evidence from previous disaster research suggests that psychosocial needs are immediate and are likely to continue long term. Psychosocial recovery plans and interventions need, as much as possible, to be culturally relevant and evidence informed, flexible enough to stay relevant to the evolving context, address disparities, and adapt to and reflect different cultural and community contexts. It is clear, also that successful recovery will require strong community mobilisation, engagement, and participation.

“Past events have shown how the Tongan diaspora will also provide long-term support for recovery, as it’s based on familial ties, and evidence of remittances reveals this. Community recovery is about regeneration. For Pacific nations this is achieved through faith, family and church-village mobilisation. The Pacific diaspora has and will continue to lead sustainable recovery efforts with the right supports. Building forward smarter and better, following a disaster event provides opportunities to contribute to a more resilient and sustainable community for the future. This will take time and should not be hurried. Successful recovery recognises that both communities and individuals have a range of complex and interrelated recovery needs.”

All: No conflict of interest.

Professor Suzanne Wilkinson, College of Sciences, Massey University, comments:

“Tonga has, so far as we know, experienced significant damage to houses and infrastructure but not large casualty numbers. Early reports suggest that the airport has not suffered significant damage. After providing the basics of life – safety, emergency shelter, food, water, medical supplies and sanitation – thoughts must turn to recovery. Recovery should mitigate future risks and rebuild in a resilient way. An approach Tonga could use is ‘Build Back Better’, now advocated by International Agencies.

“Building back better includes activities aimed at making communities, infrastructure, businesses, and the environment more resilient to future shocks and stresses. Given the damage to buildings and infrastructure in Tonga, building and property will need to be assessed to see what building stock has been damaged, what has survived, and what could be improved. Rebuilding resiliently will include working out what are better building and infrastructure types given limitations on materials, resources, skills, labour, transportation and future maintenance.

“It appears that Tonga has been affected by compounding disasters (volcanic effects causing ash deposits and tsunami damage causing flooding and coastal inundation). For recovery to be effective, waste disposal of flood and inundation damage and widespread ash clean-up and disposal are necessary and could take considerable time. Tonga will need to address how to deal with the waste, assess ash damage to health, infrastructure and property, and assess best options for clean-up and disposal of waste whilst minimising further environmental and social effects.

“Central to Tonga being able to achieve good recovery will be strong governance, leadership, decision making and the coordination of international agencies. Already reports are suggesting aid agencies should to wait for instructions from the Tongan Government whilst they assess their needs. Suggested options for building back better would agree with this advice. The use of a coordinated, locally led (usually local government) recovery system supported by national and international agencies should lead to good recovery outcomes. Clear roles and responsibilities for agencies are needed together with transparent decision making. Decision making partnerships between government, local government, trusted local leaders and community tend to produce better recovery outcomes as opposed to top-down approaches.

“Building back better includes planning to make communities more resilient, with a view to communities being able to minimise future shocks and stresses. So, a focus on rebuilding affected livelihoods and economic activity, whilst incorporating future risk reduction (such as stronger facilities and good warning systems) and resilience building (such as risk reduction education and training) would enhance long-term recovery and build even stronger communities.

“Given that it appears that there are not large casualties, one could assume that prior resilience building, warning systems, community cohesion and risk reduction education may have already played their part. Tonga is a relatively isolated nation but with strong local leadership and coordinated international support, it should recover well.”

No conflict of interest.

Note: Professor Wilkinson provided comments prior to confirmation that two people died following the eruption and tsunami.

Sandeeka Mannakkara, Lecturer, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Auckland, comments:

“As Tonga faces this devastating disaster, their first priority will be to provide immediate relief to its communities in the form of saving lives and emergency relief activities. Whilst these activities are vital, it is just as important to recognize that this early relief phase lays the foundation for long-term recovery and resilience of the affected communities. Post-disaster recovery efforts that do not prepare early for subsequent recovery activities such as rebuilding homes, resettling communities, re-establishing livelihoods, restoring psycho-social wellbeing and community cohesion, and preparing for and reducing future disaster risk, leave communities more vulnerable than before. This is evident in many developing countries which rely on international aid. Haiti provides a stark example where communities were still in transitional shelter as a result of failing to move on to long-term recovery after the 2010 earthquake, making subsequent disaster events in 2016 and 2021 incredibly devastating. From lessons learnt in other countries, Tonga has the opportunity to overcome common mistakes and create better outcomes.

“Firstly, it is imperative to plan now for long-term recovery. Whilst administering relief activities, Tongan authorities need to begin comprehensive planning for short, medium, and long-term recovery phases. Exit strategies for humanitarian development actors to transition activities back to local authorities need to be ascertained; clear roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders need to be established; needs assessments should be conducted, and project selection and monitoring and evaluation criteria need to be set up. Tongan authorities need to optimise local resources and capacity to enable a long-term overlook on recovery in partnership with external agencies.

“The number of different local and international stakeholders partaking in recovery creates duplicity, discord, and misunderstandings. Therefore, secondly, it is important to adopt a single data management system starting from the relief phase to assist coordination between stakeholders and provide transparent access to necessary information.

“Finally, it is important to get communities involved early. This will prevent poor decision-making and misallocation of resources, build community capacity and resilience, result in mutually beneficial outcomes, and have a positive effect on re-building social cohesiveness and well-being.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Carol Stewart, College of Health, Massey University, and co-director of the International Volcanic Health Hazards Network, comments:

“The extent of impacts from the very large eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, 65 km north of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa are unknown, because communications to Tonga are still very limited. What we do know from preliminary reports is that approximately 2 cm of volcanic ashfall has fallen across the island of Tongatapu. This quantity of ashfall is sufficient to cause impacts such as breaking roof gutters (which then affects rainwater harvesting), damaging crops, and contaminating rainwater-based water supplies.

“The main health effects of volcanic ash are to the respiratory system, eyes and skin. Ashfall on the ground is not hazardous to breathing, but fine ash in the air can be inhaled. Very fine particles can travel deep into the lungs where in the short term they can cause asthma symptoms to flare up. Slightly larger particles irritate the nose and threat and cause coughs and sore throats. Fresh ash particles typically have an acidic surface coating, and if they get in the eyes they can sting and cause scratching damage and can irritate skin.

“In most volcanic eruptions and for most people, volcanic ash will cause very few health problems, but we know that some groups of people are at more risk of ill effects from inhaling ash. This includes people who have pre-existing lung problems such as asthma, COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

“People can protect their health in ‘ashy’ conditions by staying indoors and keeping ash out of their houses as best they can. If they have to go outdoors, or if they are doing clean-up activities, they should wear a good face mask (preferably a P2 or N95 mask), long clothing, googles and closed shoes. Higher-risk people should avoid clean-up activities, keep their medications handy and use as prescribed, and call their family doctor or the health clinic if they are concerned.”

No conflict of interest.

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