12 January 2023

Nearly a year on from when a volcano – which was more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated - erupted in Tonga, and the country is well on the road to recovery. The anniversary of this event serves as a timely reminder that the Pacific Ring of Fire remains a volatile area for natural disasters – and that UNICEF stands ready to act quickly in response to such disasters.  

On 15 January 2022 the remote Pacific nation of Tonga awoke to what geologists believe was one of the strongest eruptions in the Polynesian nation in the past three decades – of an underwater volcano 65 km north of the main island of Tongatapu.

“Few can forget the images broadcast at the time; the explosive eruption created a volcanic plume that reached more than 50 km into the atmosphere, spreading ash across the island groups of Tonga and generating a 1.2-metre-high tsunami that affected the coastal areas of the islands, damaging infrastructure, homes and schools,” said Alice Hall, UNICEF Australia’s Head of International Programs.

At least three people died and most of the population was impacted by a thick layer of ash that blanketed the country. One of the biggest impacts at the time was on water supplies - with the volcanic ash contaminating water sources. Schools were affected by a layer of dust and ash, leaving children without classrooms, and some food crops were also destroyed.

“UNICEF was quick to respond at the time, launching an appeal here in Australia, where our generous donors raised over $1m to help support relief efforts in Tonga. UNICEF shipped ten metric tons of emergency supplies, which focused on providing critical water, sanitation and hygiene supplies; along with education and health supplies to the most affected population,” says Ms Hall.

UNICEF’s direct support included:  

  • 16,096 people benefited from water tank treatment, and 4,581 households were provided with water, sanitation and hygiene supplies.
  • 5,012 children and 5,117 caregivers were provided direct mental health support services, along with delivery of recreational kits for children through games and sports, to try and create a sense of normality in a crisis environment.
  • 7,665 children were supported with teaching and learning supplies as part of the ‘back to school’ campaign.

Tonga has slowly returned to normal over the past year and tourism has now resumed, with Qantas offering direct flights to the island nation. UNICEF continues work in Tonga, including through the provision of vaccines. 

“Tonga is well on the path of recovery from this natural disaster; however, the Pacific Ring of Fire is a volatile region, in fact, only this week there was a 7.6 earthquake in Indonesia, and 7.0 earthquake near Vanuatu. That’s why we have to be prepared and ready to act for future disasters,” says Ms Hall.

Children are always among the most vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and violence when a humanitarian crisis occurs. Through UNICEF’s 75 years’ experience working with children in crisis we know the importance of enabling children’s lives to resume some normalcy as quickly as possible.

“UNICEF is on the ground before, during and after emergencies working to reach children and families with lifesaving aid and long-term assistance, and we operate entirely on voluntary donations. UNICEF’s Supply Division taps into a global network of supply hubs – including in Brisbane - as well as the world’s largest humanitarian warehouse in Copenhagen,” says Ms Hall.

In emergency situations, UNICEF sends pre-packed kits that can be assembled, shipped and distributed rapidly, covering needs such as nutrition, sanitation, and education, among others.

ENDS

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About UNICEF

UNICEF operates in more than 190 countries in some of the world’s toughest places to reach the most disadvantaged children. UNICEF Australia works with local partners to raise children’s voices, defend their rights, and help them reach their potential at all stages of life, here and in neighbouring countries. We rely entirely on voluntary donations to provide lifesaving support; improve maternal and child health, education, and nutrition; and to respond to global emergencies.

For more information about UNICEF Australia and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.au