Tonga disaster shows need to guard against communication disruptions

If undersea cables, the lifeline of communications, were damaged in the event of a large-scale disaster, it would be difficult to assess the impact of the catastrophe and provide prompt assistance. This is an issue that Japan, a disaster-prone country, cannot afford to overlook.

The eruption of an undersea volcano in waters of the South Pacific nation of Tonga triggered tsunami up to 15 meters high and covered many of the archipelago’s 170 islands in volcanic ash.

Most of the population of 100,000 is believed to have been affected by the ash fall and tsunami, but the full extent of the damage is not yet known. There is a shortage of drinking water due to contamination from volcanic ash, and the nation’s main industries of agriculture and fisheries have been hit hard, leading to fears of food shortages.

New Zealand and Australia were the first to immediately start transporting supplies. Japan, the United States, China and France have also stepped up to give assistance. Japan has decided to provide more than ¥100 million in emergency grant-in-aid and dispatched Self-Defense Force transport planes, a transport ship and about 330 personnel.

Tonga is traditionally pro-Japan, and as the only kingdom in the South Pacific, it has a close relationship with the Japanese Imperial family. In recent years, however, Tonga has become increasingly dependent on China in the economic field, and China is using this as leverage to expand its influence.

Rather than competing against China over the scale of aid, Japan should strive to provide well-tailored assistance in line with local needs. For the time being, there likely is an urgent need to provide equipment that can convert seawater into fresh water and pressure washers to remove ash.

It is hoped that long-term support will be provided with a view to resuming operations in the agriculture and fishery sectors and stabilizing the lives of citizens.

The challenge is how to establish support activities in the nation while preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Tonga has effectively adopted a zero-COVID policy, and there have only been a few cases so far.

It is necessary to ensure that supplies are delivered without contact with the local people and aid workers are thoroughly tested before and after entering the country to prevent the spread of the virus through relief activities.

This disaster has highlighted anew the importance of undersea cables. Cable damage following the eruption severed international telephone lines and internet connections to Tonga, and information from the nation was cut off.

Japan must learn from this. Securing telecommunications is also essential for national security.

Japan’s undersea cables are concentrated on the Pacific Ocean side, and their vulnerability to huge earthquakes has been identified as an issue.

The government aims to establish a system in about three years to extend the cables evenly around Japan so as to better weather disasters and contingencies. The government must steadily proceed with this project, along with the decentralization of cable relay stations that are concentrated in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other major regions.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 26, 2022.