Tonga Suffers Nationwide Communications Blackout Amid Volcanic Eruption

Sophie Ulm
Staff Writer

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on January 15 created continuous challenges in aiding Tonga, the nation of Pacific islands caught in the disaster. One of the main challenges resulting from the eruption, according to PBS News, was the severing of Tonga’s fiber-optic cable, cutting off communication with the rest of the world.

Five days after the eruption, Digitel, Tonga’s telecoms operator, was able to establish a patchy connection for international calls in some areas. Digitel still cautioned the Tongan people, and the rest of the world, that there is no guarantee that these connections will remain, citing that the mass numbers of calls being made and received might put a strain on the systems that they cannot handle.

Another potential threat to Tonga’s communications is continued volcanic activity, which has prevented ships and workers from reaching the cable. Though satellite communication remains an option, The Guardian reports that it has been hampered by volcanic debris still in the air. It is unclear where the cable is most damaged. With multiple breaks in the line and the possibility of the power source in Tonga being damaged, finding which problem to address first is another logistical issue hindering a nation in need of aid. BBC News reports that repairs may take up to four weeks for the internet cable.

According to Reuters, there was no warning of the incoming communications cutoff. One moment people were describing what they were seeing to their families over the phone, the next the line was cut off and relatives began to fear the worst. Al Jazeera says that for many, the only constant form of communication was the nation’s main radio channel, which kept everyone as updated as possible with most other communication limited.

With continued challenges communicating between Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, and the outlying islands, Tonga seems open to accepting more aid despite strict COVID-19 policies. Tonga, which is effectively COVID-free, set stringent guidelines for the aid that it is willing to receive in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. According to the Associated Press, Tonga has primarily been receiving contactless aid from Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.

These contactless deliveries have brought essential supplies to the people of Tonga, though this has not been without issue. One of the Australian boats had a crewmember test positive for COVID-19 and had to turn back around. Planes have only recently been able to reach Tonga due to the mass amounts of debris on runways that have had to be cleared.

As Tonga continues to wait for much-needed supplies like food and water, communication is still an essential part of the picture. With communication slowly being built back up, Tonga is able to maintain order and provide necessary care and transportation for those most affected by the natural disaster, as well as communicate what aid they are most desperately in need of.

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