18/01/2022 – Help is on the way. That's the message from the UN to the people of Tonga still cut off from the rest of the world. Acting coordinator to the Pacific Jonathan Veitch is in Fiji.
We only have confirmations of two [causalities] so far, but unfortunately, we still don't have full information from some of the Haʻapai group of islands, so we are not exactly sure of the latest in terms of the low-lying areas of Haʻapai. We know that the Tongan Navy has gone there, and we expect to hear back soon. But unfortunately we definitely know that one UK national and one Tongan national lost their lives.
Your team has established contact in Tonga. Quite a bit of struggle still with communication.
It’s absolutely terrible. I've worked in a lot of emergencies, but this is one of the hardest in terms of communicating and trying to get information from there, with the severing of the sea cable that comes from Fiji, they're just cut off completely. So, we are relying a hundred percent on satellite phones.
We've been discussing with New Zealand and with Australia and our UN colleagues, the group that deal with telecommunications, and we hope to have this back up and running relatively soon, but it's been a bit of a struggle. It took more than 24 hours just for us to confirm that our own staff were safe and well, and normally that would take half an hour. So, it's been a lot more difficult than a regular operation.
Who is coordinating the relief effort and humanitarian needs?
We are from the UN side. We are coordinating all the UN and our partners. We had a meeting yesterday to discuss that and go through all the clusters. So, we've launched all the clusters. These are the groups like the water and sanitation cluster, that will be a critical one. The health one led by WHO, WASH (water and sanitation) is led by UNICEF and so on. They are then responsible for coordinating with all partners on the ground, and those remotely as well.
In terms of the fresh water needs of the citizens, of the people of Tonga, what has been done and what needs to be done?
I think this is one of the biggest concerns. As you know in any crisis, one of the most urgent needs always is clean water. We've heard from some senior members of the Government there that water will be an urgent need. So, I think that one of the first things that can be done is that those aircraft or those ships that both New Zealand and Australia have offered, can provide bottled drinking water. That's a very small, short term solution.
We need to ensure that the desalination plants are functioning well, and properly, and we need to check that now in country. And we also need to send a lot of testing kits and other material over there so that people can treat their own water. Because as you know, the vast majority of the population in Tonga are reliant on rainwater and with the ashes, it's currently been a bit acidic so we're not sure of the quality of that water right now.
What do you want people in the region listening now to know, and what are the key messages that you'd like to get to people who have been cut off from phone contact?
I think that the main thing is we understand those people who are trying to reach their loved ones wherever they are in Tonga. It's been a difficult period for them, but of course we send our solidarity to the people who are actually in the country who are cut off. Our main message is that everybody's working day and night on this. We're putting our supplies together, we’re ready to move. We've got teams on the ground, we're coming up with cash and other supply solutions. And so on. We're working very closely with the Australians and the New Zealanders, but many other donors as well. The Americans have committed, Japan and so on.
Help is on its way, but we do need to ensure that we have good telecommunications. That's really, really urgent. And the other challenge is access of course, because Tonga as you know, is one of the lucky countries in the world, or few lucky countries in the world, that hasn't had any COVID and they’ve done that because they’ve been in lockdown essentially. They have very strict regulations for this. So we'll have to operate rather remotely. We'll be supporting the government to do the implementation and then working very much through local organizations there.
Jonathan Veitch, Acting United Nations Co-ordinator to the Pacific, spoke to Radio New Zealand on 18/01/22. Radio New Zealand