Tongans could finally make phone contact with their families and the outside world on Thursday, five days after a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami completely cut off the Pacific island nation.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which has killed at least three people and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, knocked out communications around the nation of about 105,000 people on Saturday.

Telephone links between Tonga and the wider world began to be reconnected late Wednesday, though restoring full internet connectivity is likely to take a month or more, according to the owner of the archipelago’s sole undersea communications cable.

Full network services will not be available until the undersea cable is fixed, Telecom operator Digicel said. A specialist ship aims to embark from Port Moresby on a repair voyage over the weekend, said Samiuela Fonua, chairman of cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd.

But with eight or nine days’ sailing to collect equipment in Samoa, then an uncertain journey toward the fault in the eruption area, he said it will be “lucky” if the job is done within a month.

“It could be longer than that,” he said via 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.”

Tonga’s government and the state-owned Tonga Communications Corp. could not be contacted for comment.

Contact made from abroad

In the meantime, Tongans abroad were frantically calling their families back home to ensure their safety.

“Today, there’s a sigh of relief as we are able to communicate with our loved ones back home,” said John Pulu, a television and radio personality who is based in Auckland.

He has been able to speak with his mother and family in Nuku’alofa, saying they are all safe and well.

“We are breathing and sleeping a little better,” he said.

Risk of disease

The virtual communications blackout has made relief efforts, already challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, even more difficult. Two New Zealand navy vessels will arrive in Tonga on Friday carrying critical water supplies.

Photographs posted on social media revealed more of the devastation on Wednesday, showing coastal areas where trees and buildings had been swept away and neighbourhoods covered with a thick coating of ash. People worked together to clear the debris and inspect the ruins of their homes.

A combination of satellite images shows homes and buildings before the main eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on December 29, 2021 (top) and the same area on January 18, 2022, in Nuku’alofa, Tonga (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The Red Cross said its teams in Tonga had confirmed that saltwater 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 diarrhea,” said Katie Greenwood, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The communications blackout has underscored the vulnerability of the undersea fibre-optic cables that have become the backbone of global telecoms.

The cable was finished in 2018 and boosted Tonga’s net speeds more than 30-fold, but is almost its sole link to the wider world.

Attempts to replicate an emergency satellite connection that was set up when the same cable was severed three years ago had stalled amid a contract dispute between the government and Singapore-based satellite operator Kacific.

The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday that Tonga was negotiating with Kacific, which has a satellite above the archipelago, to access a satellite internet connection.

Tonga Cable will be expected to pay the U.S. maintenance company SubCom for the repairs. Fonua declined to provide an estimate but said the bill would probably come in below $1 million. “We will settle the cost later,” he said.

“There are some other cable companies as well that are willing to provide spare cables,” he said, without elaborating.

Tonga will be able to access a $10-million Asian Development Bank relief facility upon request, deputy director general of the ADB’s Pacific department, Emma Veve, told Reuters.

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By MD Abdullah

Abdullah is a former educator, lifelong money nerd, and a Plutus Award-winning freelance writer who specializes in the scientific research behind irrational money behaviors. Her background in education allows her to make complex financial topics relatable and easily understood by the layperson. She is the author of four books, including End Financial Stress Now and The Five Years Before You Retire.

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