Drinking water in short supply, says Japanese NPO worker in Tonga

Tonga Red Cross Society / Reuters
A general view shows damaged buildings and landscape covered with ash following the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Kanokupolu, Tonga, on Jan. 23.

Saturday marked two weeks since an underwater volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami ravaged Tonga.

International relief operations are presently underway in the South Pacific island country, where water has become contaminated with volcanic dust and clean drinking water is in short supply.

A Japanese woman who lives on a remote island distant from the capital spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun on Friday about the difficulties the islanders have been facing. As the island has yet to restore communications, the woman spoke via satellite phone.

Takako Lui lives on the island of Vava’u, about 300 kilometers northeast of the island of Tongatapu, which is home to the capital of Nuku’alofa. Lui, 43, has worked for Kawasaki-based nonprofit organization Vava’u Future Creating Project (VFCP) since 2017.

Courtesy of Takako Lui
Takako Lui, who spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun via satellite phone, says locals stay in contact using walkie talkies as communications have yet to be restored on the island of Vava’u, Tonga.

According to the NPO and other sources, Vava’u has a population of about 15,000, accounting for more than 10 percent of Tonga’s 104,000 inhabitants. Though communications have been restored in some parts of Tonga, telephones and other communications are yet to be reactivated on Vava’u, so Lui borrowed the satellite phone from a man who lives on the island.

The powerful eruption occurred after 5 p.m. on Jan. 15, local time. At the time, Lui was returning home from town by boat with her two children. Though they were about 260 kilometers away from the volcano, they heard multiple loud explosions and experienced a strong blast that shook their bodies.

Understanding that it was likely an eruption that would be followed by a tsunami, they quickly returned to the town and evacuated to an elevated area. They continued to hear explosions until around 10:30 p.m. Lui and her children spent the night at a shared office space.

The next morning, they returned home with T-shirts covering their faces, as the large amount of volcanic dust in the atmosphere made it difficult to breathe. Near their beach-front home, tsunami waves had encroached some 6 to 8 meters inland. Fortunately, Lui’s family home was not affected.

According to Lui, the eruption and tsunami did not injure anyone on Vava’u or inflict conspicuous damage to buildings. However, crop fields were covered with volcanic dust, negatively impacting agricultural produce, the island’s main industry. Internet connections and telephones have yet to be revived and it is impossible to receive overseas wire transfers and withdraw cash because automated teller machines do not work.

 Securing drinking water is a particularly urgent issue. Less than 50 percent of Vava’u’s population has access to the island’s water supply, with many households relying on rainwater tanks for domestic and drinking water. However, volcanic dust in the rainwater tanks and pipes means water safety cannot be guaranteed, even if the dust is removed. “Drinking water has sold out in stores, so we have no choice but to use water that might be contaminated,” Lui said. “I don’t know how long we can manage with such water.”

Lui has been helping locals install rainwater tanks in schools on the island. She and three friends have started washing rainwater tanks and other equipment with high-pressure water cleaners at about 40 primary and junior high schools in the run-up to the new semester. However, due to a lack of equipment, they have so far only managed to complete work at nine locations. “We need more equipment and water-safety inspection kits to help speed up operations” she said.

As of Friday, Vava’u was still waiting for its first relief supplies, Lui said. Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Tonga’s government operates a de facto “zero COVID” policy and strongly restricts entry to the country, meaning there are not enough people to support locals.

“We need to speed up the removal of volcanic dust, but medical institutions are almost nonexistent on the island.” Lui said. “Additionally, many people are greatly concerned about coronavirus entering from outside the country. We need help but we’re facing a dilemma.”