World Bank tallies cost of volcano eruption in Tonga

By Melissa Coade

February 15, 2022

An Australian Army soldier conducts clean-up operations on Atata Island as part of Operation Tonga Assist 2022. (Defence)

Tonga suffered economic damage totalling an estimated US$90.4 million following the eruption of a submarine volcano that caused a Tsunami and ashfall in January.

According to the World Bank, the estimated damage of the Tonga Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai eruption – considered a once in a millennium event – on January 15 is equivalent to approximately 18.5% of the country’s GDP. 

The World Bank believes about 85,000 were affected by the disaster across Tonga, with major disruptions to water supplies contaminated by ashfall and a tsunami hitting some of the most populated islands hardest.

“Tongatapu recorded the highest estimated damage, with approximately US$69 million in damages. 

“However, distribution of damages appears to have varied greatly across islands, with some islands, like Atatā and Mango, experiencing almost complete destruction, while the Vava’u group fortunately experienced only minimal damage from ashfall,” the report said. 

The World Bank provided immediate aid of US$8 million for emergency basic services and to help Tongans most affected. 

The majority of agricultural households in the country – about 85% – are believed to be affected in some way, with a damage bill of US$20.9 million for the sector, including crops lost and damage to shallow reef fisheries.

The assessment of damages considered the financial impact to physical infrastructure, including residential buildings, non-residential buildings, transport, power and water, sea and air infrastructure, repairs to the submarine cable, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and ashfall clean up. 

“Around 600 structures in total, including at least 300 residential buildings, have been damaged or destroyed by the tsunami waves in Tonga, with an estimated US$43.7 million of damage,” the report said. 

“Many tourism businesses have been particularly hard hit – with accommodation, wharves and worker’s homes destroyed or severely damaged.”

The report did not include the ongoing costs to the broader economy in terms of the forecast impact on the agriculture and tourism sectors.

The international institution prepared a Global Rapid Post-Disaster Damage Estimation (GRADE) report at the request of the Government of Tonga and in consultation with other partners that included universities in New Zealand and Singapore, NASA and the European Space Agency. It was financed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

Tonga’s finance minister, Tatafu Moeaki, said communications and logistics remained a major challenge for the country, one month on since the natural disaster.

“This report supported by the World Bank provides us with a clearer picture of the extent of damages from this catastrophe, and will inform our next steps as Tonga builds back stronger,” Moeaki said. 

In a statement, World Bank Country Director for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands Stephen Ndegwa said the disaster assessment showed Tonga would be dealing with recovery efforts for some time. 

“We are proud to stand with Tonga and continue to support its response and recovery, alongside many other partners,” Ndegwa said.

A new report from Nature has explained the recent Tonga disaster has left scientists scratching their heads over the physics of eruptions, as the ash cloud it generated blasted so high yet emitted less ash than would be expected for an eruption of such magnitude.

At least three people are believed to have perished as a result of the natural disaster.


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