New Zealand will provide $20 million (US$12.2 million) towards an initiative aimed at strengthening severe weather and early warning capabilities in the Pacific region.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters made the announcement in Tonga, where he and Minister for Pacific Peoples Dr Shane Reti are on the first leg of this year’s Pacific Mission.

The funds will go towards setting up and delivering a programme dubbed Weather Ready Pacific, which will help strengthen the ability to plan for and respond to extreme weather events.

Peters called the $20 million (US$12.2 million) support an investment and said it showed how New Zealand prioritises the Pacific, particularly as it faces climate change issues.

The new programme will also help provide timely and accurate weather information to help increase resilience to climate change, he said.

“This includes improving warnings of extreme events, reducing the harm they cause through earlier recognition of potential impacts and strengthening the quality and delivery of weather and climate information and warnings to Pacific governments, businesses and communities.

The programme will be delivered by the Pacific Meteorological Council with support from other weather experts and officials in the region, including New Zealand’s MetService and NIWA.

The announcement comes as Peters and Reti are attending a special ceremony to officially open a new pharmaceutical and medical facility built with the help of $2.4 million (US$1.4 million) from New Zealand.

The large and shiny building – aptly mirroring Tonga’s red and white flag – is a marked difference to the old pharmacy building, where medical supplies were squeezed in tall piles of boxes that reached the ceiling.

The new facility was something Tonga wanted, needed and requested of New Zealand, as part of its Covid-19 response and the ongoing impacts.

The attendance of Crown Prince Tupouto’a at the ceremony has turned it into a more grand affair, with a church choir singing a number of hymns and cultural protocol being strictly adhered to.

With the entire first part of the ceremony entirely in Tongan, other than the words “Honorable Winston Peters and Honorable Shane Reti…Aotearoa,” there was slight confusion when the choir stood up to sing the first song after the national anthem.

The rest of the crowd present looked awkwardly at each other, not sure whether to stand up either – before doing so.

The only person who had not seen this, however, was Peters, who remained sitting holding his very large Tongan flax fan.

Someone quickly whispered to him and, looking up, stood up accordingly, chuckling heartily.

There were more chuckles – from guests and Peters himself – when the host introducing him to the stage ran off a number of accolades, including Peters being a former rugby representative.

A Tongan health official thanked New Zealand, saying poignantly: “Thank you for looking after us – just like the true big brother that you are.”

A bilateral meeting was held with Tongan officials led by Deputy PM Samiu Vaipulu.

Vaipulu called the meeting “fruitful and productive” and expressed how grateful they were for New Zealand’s ongoing help, as well as that from Australia.

He said priority areas addressed in the meeting included education and justice.

Tonga has also requested a new courthouse; as well as help for a new submarine cable; which was repaired a month after it was destroyed in the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption in January, 2022 – cutting communications to the island nation.

Peters told media this visit to Tonga was a long-term investment.

“It’s about investment in a part of the world we live in, which we’ve all got a very, very acute interest in the events going forward and the kind of environment that we’re living in.”

He said the conversation was helpful, to establish what he described as plans of action.

“But also to tick off our record of performance – not to let things drag by, but ensure things happen in the interest of both of our countries and, indeed, the wider Pacific.”

He said New Zealand also wanted to help Tonga as it gets ready to host this year’s Pacific Islands Forum in August.

“We will do all that we can to make sure that it is a serious success.”

He also acknowledged the ongoing impacts of Covid-19 around the world, including in the Pacific region.