First aid flights set to reach Tonga
Published : Thursday, 20 January, 2022 at 11:11 AM Count : 768
The first humanitarian flights are finally on the way to volcano and tsunami-stricken Tonga, five days after the dual disaster cut the Pacific nation off from the rest of the world.
Officials in Australia and New Zealand confirmed that two military transport planes should arrive within hours at Tonga's main airport, which was only recently cleared of ash after painstaking effort.
A "C-17 Globemaster left from Amberley Airport Base around 7:00 am today (2000 GMT)," an Australian defence official told AFP, with New Zealand also confirming a C-130 Hercules was on route following days of delays.
The flights will carry vital humanitarian supplies such as water and telecommunications equipment.
News from Tonga has been severely limited since the weekend's disaster, which damaged undersea communications cables.
On the ground, Tongans have scrambled to clear the runway at Fua'amotu International Airport of a thick blanket of volcanic ash.
UN crisis coordinator Jonathan Veitch told AFP late Wednesday that the runway on the Pacific kingdom's main island -- buried in five to 10 centimetres (two to four inches) of ash -- was again operational after days of hard toil clearing the concrete.
Ash particles can be poisonous and pose a threat to modern jet aircraft, including by melting and accumulating in the engines.
Three people were killed when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano exploded on Saturday, triggering tsunami waves that ripped down homes and caused widespread flooding.
The overwhelmed Tongan government has called the dual eruption-tsunami "an unprecedented disaster" and reported that waves as high as 15 metres (50 feet) destroyed almost every home on some outlying islands.
More than 80 percent of the archipelago's population of 100,000 have been impacted by the disaster, the United Nations said Wednesday, and initial assessments indicate an urgent need for drinking water.
When the underwater caldera exploded, it fired debris 30 kilometres (19 miles) into the air and deposited ash and acid rain across the kingdom of 170 islands -- poisoning water supplies.
"Water supplies across Tonga have been severely impacted by ashfall and saltwater from the tsunami," said Katie Greenwood of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
She said there was a "mounting risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea".