The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) is deeply concerned about the impact of the Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano eruption, and tsunami, on the people of the Kingdom of Tonga.

In response, the Director General, Kosi Latu, has assured that SPREP is standing by and ready to work with the Government of Tonga and partners to provide support, especially in dealing with the environmental impact of the natural disaster.

“First and foremost, we express our heartfelt sorrow at the loss of life as a result of the disaster,” Latu said. “As people of the Pacific, we are a close-knit community and we share the pain of the loss of lives and the destruction of property. Our thoughts are also with the people of the Kingdom of Tonga as they move to deal with COVID-19 so soon after the devastation of the tsunami and the volcano. These are very difficult times but we are standing by to provide assistance where we are needed.”

The Government of Tonga report that about 84 percent of the population has been directly affected. Tonga’s key challenges continue to be access to safe water, ash clearance, ensuring food security and dealing with COVID-19.

The Pacific environmental regional organisation is coordinating the wide range of assistance within its mandate and areas of expertise to help Tonga to assess the impacts of the eruption and tsunami on Tonga’s environment and appropriate measures to restore it to support the resiliency and livelihoods of the people of Tonga. SPREP is working in partnership with the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP) for united, coordinated support to Tonga.

Latu noted that the volcanic eruption; impact of the ensuing tsunami and the volcanic ash it generated, has again highlighted the vulnerability of Tonga, the wider Pacific region and its people to natural disasters. The Pacific Islands include the top three countries with the highest disaster risk listed in the World Risk Index 2021 Report with Tonga listed as third, Vanuatu as first and Solomon Islands second. The Report assesses the disaster risk for 181 countries which covers almost 99% of the world’s total population. Of the top 15 countries with the highest disaster risk, Papua New Guinea is ranked as ninth most at disaster risk, and Fiji ranked fourteenth.

“SPREP will engage with the Government of Tonga and all the relevant partners and stakeholders to assist where we can, as we try to remedy the damage done to the environment, which will have a direct impact on livelihoods,” the Director General said.

Photo: NZDF

Latu and his Leadership team from the four priority areas of SPREP’s work, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management, Waste Management and Pollution Control, Climate Change and Environmental Monitoring and Governance, have been working to look at ways to provide support to Tonga during the recovery and rebuilding phase. Amongst the key environment impacts SPREP has identified from the initial assessments, are:

*Natural disasters – such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis compound the impacts of other key human drivers of biodiversity loss such as invasive species, climate change and habitat destruction.

*Volcanic ash contains a complex mix of chemicals, including micronutrients that can trigger algae blooms and potentially cause changes to benthic composition in coral reefs. The release of these nutrients to water can be complex and there is potential to create favourable condition for nitrogen fixing species, and stimulation of harmful algal blooms such as cyanobacteria, which can present a human health issue.

*Negative impact on Tonga’s protected areas such as the effect of flooding and debris generated by the tsunami – damage to vegetation, inshore fisheries, coral reefs, mangroves, etc. There is also concern that ash cloud – blocking out sunlight for extended periods – can lead to the creation of acid rain, potential fish-die offs and coral reef smothering.

*It is anticipated that there could be significant impact on the land and sea for the months to come, combined with the current human-induced environmental degradation and exacerbated by climate change and disease (COVID-19), increased pressure is highly likely on protected areas in terms of legal and illegal harvesting and overexploitation, especially of species highly valued as food sources and livelihoods.

*A loss of coral reefs would affect Tonga’s ability to cope with rising waters and storm surges leading to accelerated erosion of the coastline. This is a concern for Tonga, where climate change is driving the sea level to rise by about 6 millimeters (0.2 inches) per year — double the global average.

*Urgent and appropriate waste management processes are required for emergency response and recovery. Planning is critical to ensure prioritisation of cleanup resources and coordination is effective.

Concluded Latu: “These are some of the key environmental concerns we have in the aftermath of the tsunami. We are also acutely aware that when it comes to the Pacific Ocean, the impact is not limited to Tonga. It affects all of us in the Pacific and so it is imperative we all work together to try and mitigate the damage done. The way forward is not going to be easy, especially with the added challenge of COVID-19, but we stand ready to do our part to help.”