Australia and New Zealand have dispatched aid to neighbour Tonga after an underwater volcanic eruption, now thought to be the world’s largest of the past three decades, triggered a devastating tsunami and sent thick smoke and soot billowing across the Pacific island nation. 

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted late afternoon Friday, sending ash plumes almost 20 kilometers high. The eruption triggered large waves that crashed into homes and streets and cut off internet access and phone lines, leaving citizens isolated and hindering communication on the true extent of the damage.

Tsunami warnings were subsequently issued across the region, including countries like Australia, Japan and the US.

New Zealand has pledged an initial NZ$500,000 (AU$472,000) to the Government of Tonga to aid recovery operations.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the financial injection is just a starting point, and more would be available upon request. New Zealand and Australian planes from the Australian Air Force and New Zealand Defence Force were also dispatched early Monday morning to evaluate infrastructural damage. 

"Damage assessments are under way and New Zealand has formally offered to provide assistance to Tonga,” Mahuta said in a statement Sunday. “As yet there are no official reports of injuries or deaths. However, communications are limited.” 

Australia, meanwhile, has offered supplies and personnel to assist organisations on the ground.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Minister for Defence Peter Dutton said that the exact needs of Tonga’s 105,000 population — be it immediate water, food or medical supplies — will become apparent as the situation evolves.

Navy vessels from Australia and New Zealand are likewise preparing to be deployed.

"Australia is ready to immediately respond to requests for assistance with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Defence coordinating critical humanitarian supplies for disaster relief,” the ministers said. “Tonga is part of our Pacific family and both the thoughts and the prayers of Australians are with the entire nation, which has been impacted by this natural disaster.”

In times of global natural disasters, Australia often leans on its aid budget to provide support. 

The nation’s foreign aid budget — which also encompasses funds used to fight extreme poverty, enhance stability and promote prosperity around the world — sits at just 0.19% of gross national income, a far cry from the 0.7% recommended by the United Nations. New Zealand’s sits at 0.27%.

Recently, campaigners and activists, including Global Citizen, have called on Australia to specifically increase its aid funding for Education Cannot Wait, a global education initiative that delivers emergency education in the aftermaths of earthquakes, floods and tsunamis like the one spurred by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. 

Alongside supporting education and providing aid amid natural disasters, an increase in the country’s foreign aid budget would allow for a more in-depth approach to reducing and adapting to climate change, tackling global diseases and advancing gender equality.

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Australia & New Zealand Send Humanitarian Aid to Tonga After Volcano Eruption and Tsunami

By Madeleine Keck