Tonga could be cut off for weeks after volcanic eruption knocked out undersea cable

Domestic network now active on most populous island as focus shifts to restoring international connections

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The undersea telecommunications cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world that was damaged by a volcano eruption will take at least a month to repair, its owner said on Wednesday, with the delay likely hampering disaster recovery efforts.

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which killed at least three people and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, knocked out connectivity to the archipelago on Saturday.

A specialist ship is aiming to set off from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on a repair voyage this weekend, said Samiuela Fonua, chairman of cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd.

But with eight or nine days' sailing to collect equipment in Samoa followed by an uncertain journey towards the fault in the eruption area, he said it would be “lucky” if the job were done within a month.

“It could be longer than that,” he told Reuters by telephone from Auckland, where he has been co-ordinating the repair.

“The cables are actually around the volcanic zone. We don't know ... whether they are intact or blown away or stuck somewhere underwater. We don't know if it's buried even deeper.”

Telecom operator Digicel said its domestic network was active on Tonga's most populous island and it was now focused on restoring international connections. Tonga's government and state-owned Tonga Communications Corp could not be contacted.

Two New Zealand navy vessels will arrive in Tonga on Friday carrying critical water supplies for the Pacific island nation.

Hundreds of homes in Tonga's smaller outer islands have been destroyed after Saturday's huge eruption triggered tsunami waves that rolled over the islands, home to 105,000 people.

With Tonga's airport smothered by volcanic ash and communications badly hampered, information on the scale of devastation has come mostly from reconnaissance aircraft.

Red Cross teams said salt water from the tsunami and volcanic ash were polluting the drinking water of tens of thousands of people.

“Securing access to safe drinking water is a critical immediate priority … as there is a mounting risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea,” said Katie Greenwood of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

New Zealand said Tonga, one of the few countries to be free of the coronavirus, had agreed to receive two of its ships, the Aotearoa and the Wellington, despite concerns about importing a Covid-19 outbreak that would exacerbate its crisis.

Simon Griffiths, captain of the Aotearoa, said his ship was carrying 250,000 litres of water, along with other supplies, and had the capacity to produce another 70,000 litres a day.

The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted about 65 kilometres from the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa with a blast heard 2,300km away in New Zealand, and sent tsunamis across the Pacific Ocean.

James Garvin, chief scientist at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center, said the force of the eruption was estimated to be more than 500 times that of the nuclear bomb the US dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.

Waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the outer Ha'apai island group, destroying all the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, where 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged, the prime minister's office said.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 12:06 PM