Tonga: Church responds following massive volcanic eruption and tsunami waves

22 January 2022

The Anglican Church is responding to the disaster on the islands of Tonga. On 15 January 2022 the Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai Volcano erupted in the sea 65km from Tonga’s capital, generating a massive ash plume and triggering tsunami waves across the nation’s islands. The Anglican Diocese of Polynesia and Anglican Missions, based in New Zealand, have launched an Emergency Appeal to support the response of the Church in Tonga, which is well experienced in disaster preparedness and response.

Initial social media reports, before the islands were cut off, showed wave surges inundating coastal areas of the capital Nuku’alofa, while satellite images show the islands blanketed in volcanic ash. Extensive damage has also been reported on some of the outer Tongan islands in the Ha’apai group, with tsunami waves reported as 5-10 metres in height reaching 500 metres inland.

The ashfall from the eruption has contaminated water and food supplies, with crops and buildings also damaged by the tsunami waves. There are fears of acid rain.  While electricity and mobile phone networks have now been re-established on the main island of Tongatapu, communications on the outer islands remain intermittent. Tongan people living in other parts of the world still wait anxiously for news of their loved ones.

The United Nations reports that almost all the crops in the country have been badly affected and that farmers have lost their livelihoods and homes. People are now arriving in shelters seeking food and fresh water supplies.

Anglican Missions, the church agency, is working with the Diocese of Polynesia which includes Tonga. It is coordinating with other church partners and a network of New Zealand agencies, linking with the government response. Other Anglican agencies in the Communion are supporting this relief response, with the Anglican Alliance helping to support coordination through its regional forum. See below for links to make a donation.

Revd Michael Hartfield, National Director of Anglican Missions, said that there was still no clear understanding of the impact on some of the northern islands although there is evidence that a very large tsunami wave may have caused devastation to coastal communities where most people live, reliant on fishing and agriculture. The ash fall will impact on water supplies and on crops, while soil is affected by seawater. It will take at least 3-4 months for some new crops to grow, so there is a real issue of food supply.

Revd Hartfield reported: “The churches always play a big role in any Pacific country because the centre of every village is the church, whether an Anglican church or a Methodist church [or others].” He explained that church buildings are often used as evacuation centres.  “Churches are often in very isolated locations so they provide the first response. They get there before the likes of the Red Cross or the official government response. Some churches have pre-positioned supplies.”

“In the long term recovery, church property could be used to grow communal gardens, as happened after a devastating tropical cyclone last year in Fiji. In the Pacific the churches are invariably front and centre of any response and longer term recovery options because we have the contacts on the ground,” Revd Hartfield said.

A response led by local people is particularly important during the pandemic as there are real concerns about importing Covid with overseas aid workers. Tonga has managed to keep free of Covid till now, with only one reported case.

The Anglican Church in Tonga is known for its impressive work in preparing for and responding to disasters. It has prepositioned containers with emergency relief supplies in four locations, including tools and building materials, water containers and purification tablets, dried food, lamps and family hygiene kits. These are located especially on remote islands which will be waiting longer for relief supplies to arrive. The Church is now distributing these supplies and will need support to replenish them.

Prepositioned supplies in four Anglican Churches in Nuku’alofa. © Anglican Missions NZ. Used with permission.

The Church is carrying out needs assessments of communities that will be used to inform short term and longer term responses. The biggest areas of concern immediately are food and water supplies and continuing access to food until crops can be regrown. Between 80 – 90% of the population depend on agriculture and fishing. It is very likely that people, especially children, will need psycho-social support after the trauma of the disaster.

Anglican youth have also been trained in recent years and play a key role in their communities. The youth have mapped where there are vulnerable households who will need help in an emergency. They have arranged locally prepositioned emergency supplies, such as dried food, water, candles, matches and first aid kits, to bring immediate help to those vulnerable individuals and families. They put all these plans into practice after a tropical cyclone in 2018, and will certainly be actively involved in this current emergency.

The Anglican Alliance calls on people around the Communion to pray for the people of Tonga in this time of crisis and to support them as they respond courageously and compassionately to the immediate needs and long term recovery from this disaster. Funding support to the Church in Tonga is being channelled through Anglican Missions in New Zealand. Funds will be used to meet immediate needs for food and water and then deployed as required following assessments over the coming days.

Donations to the Tonga Emergency appeal can be made via the following agencies:

Anglican Missions in New Zealand – click for the Tonga appeal donation page (via bank transfer or online with donations converted into New Zealand dollars)

Other Anglican partners collaborating to support the Tonga emergency:

Anglicans in Development in the Anglican Board of Mission in Australia – click here for their Tonga emergency appeal.

Anglican Overseas Aid in Australia – click here for their emergency fund.

Episcopal Relief & Development in the USA – click here to donate to their international disaster response.



Loving God,

We pray for the people of Tonga, for all affected by the volcano and tsunami, for those who have died or lost loved ones, for those who have been injured, for those who have lost homes and livelihoods.

We pray that their urgent needs may be met, that nations will be generous in showing their support, and that they will be resilient in the face of crisis. We pray too that communications may soon be restored. This we ask in the name of Jesus, your son, our Lord. Amen.

Prayer from Anglican Board of Mission