The ties that bind: Defence Minister lauds NZDF Tonga assistance

Line of Defence Magazine - Autumn 2022

HMNZS Aotearoa
HMNZS Aotearoa berths in Nuku’alofa delivering water and supplies. Image: NZDF.

In his inaugural Line of Defence article, Defence Minister Peeni Henare provides his perspectives on the NZDF’s HADR operations in response to the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption.

On the 15th of January 2022, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, a submarine volcano in Tonga, erupted violently.

The eruption sent shockwaves around the world, and was heard across the Pacific, even as far away as Alaska. The tsunami that followed destroyed hundreds of homes in Tonga, and left remote islands cut off with no access to communications.

The New Zealand Government is absolutely committed to the wellbeing of our Pacific neighbours, so we acted swiftly to provide support to the Tongan people as they responded to the disaster.

As Minister of Defence, I was proud to see the New Zealand Defence Force work efficiently and collaboratively alongside defence forces from other countries, including Australia, to quickly assist those in need.

Within 24 hours, a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3K2 Orion was on stand-by waiting for the ash clouds to subside, allowing it to carry out aerial surveillance of the damage done across the kingdom. This surveillance flight was able to alert authorities to the fact that the runway at Tonga’s main airport was covered in ash, and would need to be cleared before more support could be sent by air.

Once Tongan locals were able to clear the thick layer of volcanic ash from the runway at Nuku’alofa, the Royal New Zealand Air Force was able to send a C-130 Hercules plane, carrying humanitarian aid and various disaster relief supplies, to help those most affected by the eruption.

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On the 17th of January, while the P3K2 Orion successfully completed its first flight, two Royal New Zealand Navy ships, HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa, also departed for Tonga.

HMNZS Wellington, an Offshore Patrol Vessel transporting hydrographic and diving personnel, arrived on the 20th of January. It conducted checks of shipping channels and wharf approaches to the capital Nuku’alofa, ensuring a safe approach for all oncoming relief vessels. HMNZS Wellington then continued to multiple ports around Tonga, continuing to check shipping channels and harbour entrances to enable further oncoming support.

HMNZS Aotearoa arrived the next day, answering one of the most important priorities following the eruption – the need for fresh water. With bulk water supplies and a desalination plant capable of producing 70,000 litres of fresh water per day, HMNZS Aotearoa was able to assist Tonga with this vital part of the recovery effort.

Helicopter flights conducted from HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Canterbury were also instrumental in restoring communications to the Ha’apai island group, where technicians in full PPE were flown from HMNZS Canterbury to repair a damaged cellular tower.

The Government is continuing to support the relief effort in the aftermath of the eruption, and have committed $3 million to the response and early recovery efforts. At the same time, we are also providing assistance in Tonga’s response to COVID-19, with the New Zealand Defence Force conducting flights to Tonga as recently as the 18th of February, taking vaccines, Personal Protection Equipment, and Rapid Antigen Tests.

The New Zealand Defence Force has demonstrated its impressive capabilities in providing humanitarian aid, infrastructure, and COVID-19 support to Tonga, and as New Zealanders I think we can all take pride in their efforts. I know I am.

These actions have also demonstrated our commitment to upholding the whanaungatanga between our two nations, and show the strength of those ties that bind us to our Pacific neighbours.

While the Kingdom still faces significant challenges in looking after its people as it cleans up after this disaster, they do not face this long road ahead alone.

RiskNZ