Tonga Volcano Runway Ash Is Blocking New Zealand Relief Efforts
Volcanic ash which has settled on an airport runway in Tonga is preventing New Zealand’s relief planes from landing.
The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupted in Tonga on Saturday, January 15, sending a plume of smoke and ash into the air and reportedly causing ‘significant infrastructural damage’ on Tonga’s main island Tongatapu.
Just over 104,000 people live in the country which is made up of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited, but they were largely cut off from the rest of the world when the eruption sparked a tsunami and disrupted its undersea communications cable.
Both Australia and New Zealand sent military surveillance flights to assess damage to the country, however, New Zealand foreign affairs minister Nanaia Mahuta has explained that images show the runway at Nuku’alofa airport must be cleared before relief planes can land.
Mahuta explained on Tuesday that ‘water is among the highest priorities for Tonga at this stage’ as aid agencies believe it is likely the volcanic dust and tsunami have contaminated water supplies.
Per BBC News, Mahuta said a C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying collapsible water containers, generators, hygiene kits and other humanitarian aid was on standby to fly to the airport when the runway is cleared.
Tongans have launched efforts to clear the runway and successfully removed ash from a 100m stretch of tarmac on Monday, though 1News reporter Barbara Dreaver said there’s still ‘a long way to go’.
New Zealand has sent water supplies, disaster relief stores and a rescue helicopter to Tonga on navy ships, however they are expected to take three days to arrive. The country has also pledged an initial one million dollars (£498,000) towards recovery efforts.
A US-based company named Subcom has said it was working with Tongan authorities to repair the communications cable to Fiji, as UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric earlier noted there had been ‘no contact from the Ha’apai group of islands’.
He added: ‘We are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands – Mango and Fonoi – following surveillance flights confirming substantial property damage.’
Up to three people are reported to have died as a result of the events, though New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner for Tonga, Peter Lund, has said these reports are currently unconfirmed.
One death that has been confirmed is that of Angela Glover, whose family said she was swept away by a wave and that her body had since been discovered. It is unclear whether Glover’s death is included in the three reported deaths.
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