When Tonga went quiet

In January, the Climate Resilient Islands team in Tonga should have been preparing for visits to communities across the country. Fresh from a break after the early progress made on the project in 2021, the team was preparing to carry their momentum into the new year.

Instead, they found themselves facing an entirely different challenge when the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupted.

The 15 January eruption caused significant destruction across Tonga, affecting at least 85% of the country. Tsunamis powerful enough to be felt across the Pacific flooded coastal Tongan towns. Ashfall spread across the islands, and Tonga’s only undersea internet cable was ruptured, cutting off communication with the rest of the world.

Facing serious food insecurity, a lack of clean water and threats to the health and wellbeing of Tongan people, the local Live & Learn team quickly changed focus to begin bringing aid and resources to their communities.

This disaster prevented the Climate Resilient Islands Programme team from carrying out their planned activities – so the Programme pivoted to help them.

“The importance of pivoting the CRI programme in response to this disaster that has taken over Tonga is significant, not only as an intermediate response, but also long-term as a method of climate change resilience,” says Tamm Kingi-Falakoa, Climate Resilience Program Manager.

“It is vital to manage this immediate situation while also continuing to build long-term resilience for future scenarios that may occur, not only in Tonga but throughout the Pacific and even the world.”

Working alongside the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (MFAT) and other relevant partners, Live & Learn made a response plan to provide immediate assistance. Permaculture, Indigenous Knowledge leaders and ecosystems restorations field trips, originally planned for 2023, were brought forward.

These activities have been moved to address food security challenges, begin the restoration of degraded vegetation and coastal systems and manage people’s mental health and wellbeing in the aftermath of this disaster.

This work became even more important when COVID-19 came into the country for the first time following the eruption, sending Tonga into lockdown to prevent the disease from spreading.

Dr Peni Havea, Country Manager for Live & Learn Tonga, said it was an incredibly difficult situation for the country.

“The situation we are currently facing now is like a ‘Collateral Damage’ or ‘Double impacts’,” he said. “Not only were we negatively affected by the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption and tsunamis, but also by the COVID-19 Omicron pandemic.

“Never before have we faced such challenges in our lifetime in our small nation in Tonga.”

But the scale of these challenges has been met by the resilience of the Tongan people and the scale of the response.

The permaculture activities include community assessments alongside sector partners, permaculture training and, crucially, sending 160 food cubes to ‘Eua, Ha’apai and possibly elsewhere to secure local food supply. The food cubes will be distributed to households along with training on their usage to create a sustainable supply of locally grown, fresh food.

Man standing in front of shipping container full of food cubes

160 Foodcubes were sent to Tonga to assist with food security

Complementing this is the development of an Indigenous Leaders program, focusing on intergenerational knowledge around food security – including teaching methods of growing traditional crops – and ecosystem regeneration, as well as the mental health aspects of climate resilience. These activities will also involve young people as much as possible to ensure that traditional knowledge systems are spread throughout the communities alongside other skills like composting, crop rotation and more.

“It’s important to Live & Learn that we understand and implement this response in alignment with traditional knowledge systems and values,” Ms Kingi-Falakoa said.

“These include the principles that inform practice, Faa’i Kaveikoula ‘a e Tonga (Tonga’s Pillars): Faka’apa’apa: Acknowledging and returning respect, Anga fakatokilalo/loto tÖ: Humility and teachability, Tauhi Vaha’a: Relationship building and strengthening and Mamahi’i me’a: Loyalty and passion.”

Each of these activities will contribute to not only food security but also ecosystem restoration. After assessing the damage done to various ecosystems, restoration guidelines will be developed to integrate restoration activities alongside the Indigenous Knowledge while also contextualising them to the local context.

Additionally, Live & Learn will work with Plan international Australia to increase water security in the vulnerable communities of ‘Eua and Ha’apai, providing new water tanks, repairing and cleaning existing tanks and distributing hygiene kits.

The Tonga team has already begun doing what work they can amidst the current COVID-19 restrictions. With their efforts, plus the help of sector partners and the support and funding of MFAT, these changed activities will hopefully soon see Tonga emerging from this disaster stronger and more resilient than before.

“Because of [these challenges],” Dr Havea says, “we have learned not only to live with these viruses, but also how to become more resilient in our next eruptions and more.”

The Climate Resilient Islands Programme is funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade and implemented by Live & Learn Environmental Education.

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