The delivery of international aid to Tonga began Thursday with the arrival of humanitarian supplies from Australia and New Zealand after an undersea volcanic eruption last weekend triggered a tsunami that caused severe damage to the South Pacific island nation.
Aircraft from New Zealand and Australia carrying much needed aid and supplies were finally able to touch down in the capital Nuku'alofa on Thursday afternoon, following the completion of cleanup efforts to remove volcanic ash from the runway of its main airport.
The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano on Saturday sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, killing at least three people and causing extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure in Tonga.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton confirmed the arrival of a Royal Australian Air Force plane carrying supplies Thursday afternoon and said in a Facebook post, "Tonga is a very important member of our Pacific family and we have committed to supporting them however we can," he said.
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement the C-130 Hercules aircraft that arrived from her country is carrying "humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment."
An offshore naval patrol vessel sent by New Zealand is also expected to arrive in Tonga later Thursday, carrying hydrographic and dive personnel to survey shipping channels and assess wharf infrastructure. A Seasprite helicopter is onboard to assist with supply delivery, the New Zealand government said.
A second New Zealand ship carrying bulk fresh water supplies and a desalination plant is expected to arrive in Tonga on Friday, according to the statement.
One issue complicating international aid efforts is Tonga's status as a COVID-free country, with fears that aid personnel may bring the virus to the archipelago and worsen the situation. The Pacific nation has so far seen only one infection with no deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Before the aircraft arrival, New Zealand's Defense Minister Peeni Henare said the delivery of supplies would be "contactless," with the C-130 plane being on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand.
"We are talking to Tonga about what more they need from us and we can assure them of our ongoing support," Mahuta said.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government decided Thursday to send two C-130 transport planes to Australia as part of efforts to support Tonga. The Self-Defense Forces airplanes carrying potable water left Komaki Air Base in Aichi Prefecture on the night of the day.
Tokyo also plans to dispatch the SDF transport vessel Osumi to deliver high-pressure cleaners and handcarts to Tonga intended for the removal of volcanic ash. The vessel will also carry two CH-47 helicopters.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government-linked aid agency, is getting the relief goods ready and the ship will leave for the Pacific island nation as soon as it is ready, the Japanese government said.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, who ordered the dispatch of the SDF aircraft and vessel Thursday, said six SDF and other personnel will be sent to Australia for information gathering and coordination with other aid providers. In total, Japan will dispatch 300 people for the relief effort, the Defense Ministry said.
On Wednesday, Japan pledged more than $1 million in aid for Tonga. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday that Tokyo will "closely cooperate with Australia, New Zealand and other countries concerned" in offering assistance to Tonga.
Some 2G connectivity was restored to the archipelago on Thursday but communications remain limited with demand exceeding capacity, the New Zealand government said, after the volcanic eruption severed Tonga's sole undersea communications cable.
The United Nations said Thursday that about 84,000 people in the archipelago have been impacted by the disaster, or more than 80 percent of the population of about 105,000.