Author: Simran Singh Veronica Corno

Remittances for recovery: Dealing with the aftermath of Tonga’s volcanic eruption

Source(s): BASE

On the evening of January 15, the Kingdom of Tonga witnessed the violent eruption of the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, sending shockwaves and tsunamis across the Pacific and beyond. Within a few hours, the South Pacific archipelago was blanketed by a thick layer of smoke and ash. Entire towns were left inundated by the waves that also wiped out the single fibre-optic cable that connected the islands with the rest of the world. Experts reported that the eruption was likely the biggest recorded anywhere on the planet in over three decades and could cause long-lasting environmental damage. All houses have been destroyed on the outlying Mango Island, and only two houses remain on Fonoifua. According to the United Nations though, more than 80 percent of the population across Tonga has been affected by the disaster.

While limited news was coming out of the isolated and unconnected Kingdom of Tonga, its diaspora of nearly 150,000 people living overseas headlined the press all around the world. Tongan migrants have been central to keeping the disaster front of mind in international media, and raising funds for recovery efforts and preparation for rebuilding, which is expected to take years. Tongans working abroad regularly send money back home as ongoing support to family and communities. Remittances from families overseas — most often in Australia and New Zealand — have been the largest contributor to the Gross National Product and a major source of foreign exchange year-over-year. Seeing as 90 percent of the Tongan adults receive some form of remittances to run their households, the internet blackout had the grave consequence of leaving people short on cash when they most needed it.

Since a majority of the population relies on agriculture and fisheries for their livelihoods, the contamination of the environment by volcanic ashfall disrupted their income flows while simultaneously causing commodity prices to surge due to food and drinking water shortages.  Australia and New Zealand were the first countries to step in and extend international support to their small island neighbour. While humanitarian aid carrying food, water, medical supplies, and telecommunications equipment has provided crucial relief to communities, exchanged hands and goods has exposed Tonga to the first COVID-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic, making the monetary needs more dire.

The natural disaster and the subsequent inaccessibility to remittances disproportionately affects Tongan women. Firstly, they depend more on natural resources for livelihood and subsistence and are vulnerable to gender-based violence in the aftermath of disasters. Secondly, demographic changes due the widespread international migration of Tongan men to become seasonal workers overseas have left many women to manage as single parents, acting as caregivers for their children and in-laws.

“The volcanic eruption has left thousands of people without homes, basic supplies, internet and telephone connectivity, and few have even lost loved ones. But if anything, this disaster has revealed Tongans commitment to show up for each other and work together. We hold the principle of ‘Ko e ’Otua mo Tonga ko hoku Tofi’a’ or ‘God and Tonga are my Inheritance’ close to our hearts, and that has kept strong during these hard times, inspiring us to stand together in solidarity, working and supporting each other by fulfilling our responsibilities to our families, our communities and our government” said Temaleti Moala, BASE’s country consultant in Tonga.

As one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of the changing climate, Tonga is no stranger to such devastating disasters. Its communities have repeatedly been exposed to climate-induced hazards such as tropical cyclones, sea-level rise compounding storm surges, and droughts, which severely hinder development. In light of these occurrences, improving on sustainable and resilient infrastructure can offer protection and boost recovery. But, access to adequate sources of finance is a major challenge for vulnerable households with limited resources in small Pacific Island countries to achieve these goals.

To ensure that resilience outpaces risk, BASE - Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy in partnership with Oxfam in the Pacific and with support from Convergence are finalising a feasibility study (under the RemitResilience project)  for the development of a remittance-based finance vehicle in Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu that enables remittance senders to channel part of their remittances towards climate resilient solutions. The study found that within the past 5 years, 70 percent of the respondents faced climate-related loss and damage to their houses at least once. Due to slow government response and patchwork pledges, Tongans often tend to fall back on their family and informal networks to cope with post-crisis rehabilitation.

“Remittances play an indispensable role in times of emergency in Tonga. According to our research, 73 percent of people that receive remittances and had their house damaged or destroyed due to climate-induced disaster used the money for reconstruction,” notes Veronica Corno, Climate Finance Specialist at BASE, “It is clear that this event will be no different — leveraging remittances in the upcoming months, and even years, will be central for Tonga to rise and rebuild in a sustainable and resilient manner.”

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Hazards Volcano
Country and region Fiji Tonga Vanuatu
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