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The first humanitarian aid has arrived in the Pacific nation of Tonga

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The first international shipment of humanitarian aid has arrived in the Pacific nation of Tonga. A military plane from New Zealand has landed five days after an underwater volcanic eruption killed three people and left behind extensive tsunami damage and also a thick blanket of fallen ash. Here to tell us more about the international relief effort is reporter Ashley Westerman, who joins us from Manila. Ashley, why did it take so long for aid to arrive?

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: So the eruption damaged an underwater fiber optic cable that knocked out the internet and phone across Tonga, and that made communication with officials nearly impossible. And the blackout also made it difficult to assess the damage and really know what Tonga needed. But, A, a New Zealand air force plane was only able to land today on Tonga's largest island, Tongatapu, after the Tongan military cleared the runway there of volcanic ash by hand. Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, the commander of Joint Forces New Zealand, told the press back in Wellington that the plane is carrying relief supplies, such as food, water, generators and personal hygiene kits.

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JIM GILMOUR: And that is now being unloaded as we speak. No contact. COVID protocols are being adhered to rigorously. And that aircraft will return to New Zealand tonight.

MARTINEZ: Returning tonight - so they're not going to stay and help out?

WESTERMAN: They're not because the Tongan government has kept their COVID restrictions on outside visitors in place. Tonga has only recorded one COVID-19 case the entire pandemic, and officials want to keep it that way. Here's Jonathan Pryke with the Lowy Institute in Sydney on how Tonga managed to use its remoteness in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to its advantage during the pandemic.

JONATHAN PRYKE: Tonga was able to quickly put the barriers up between itself and the outside world to implement quarantine systems, to stop international travel and to closely monitor freight coming in and out of the country. So, you know, they acted swiftly, and I think that's - a lot of that's been driven by the history of Tonga's experience with the outside world and particularly Westerners and bringing disease to the country.

WESTERMAN: And even though Tonga has a pretty high vaccination rate, letting in international workers could put their population at risk, and officials are just not willing to do that. But this also means that aid groups are going to have to work with Tonga remotely, which is not easy. But the groups I've spoken with say they'll do whatever it takes to help out, and that includes the International Federation of the Red Cross. I spoke with their partnership and program director Sai Nayana Roko Okago (ph).

SAI NAYANA ROKO OKAGO: If there is a need for quarantine of the relief items, the need for quarantine for the team, we will also consider that.

WESTERMAN: Now, a lot of aid organizations like IFRC have people already based in Tonga, and many of those staffers have already been mobilized.

MARTINEZ: All right, so what does Tonga need right now? What's their priority as they begin to clean up?

WESTERMAN: Experts I've spoken with say the main concern right now is the volcanic ash that's blanketing everything. If left for too long, it could contaminate the drinking water, and Tongan officials say that's already started to happen. It could also harm crops and even livestock. Volcanologist Shane Cronin at The University of Auckland says the ash itself isn't so dangerous, but what happens later can be.

SHANE CRONIN: The ash is coated with mineral salts, and they're mainly sulfur, chlorine and sometimes fluorine. And what happens when water gets onto the ash is it dissolves up these salts, then creates acid.

WESTERMAN: And these acids, he says, make the water taste bad and can harm plants. Meanwhile, food security is also an issue. There's been reports of widespread damage to crops, and scientists say the eruption likely killed pretty much any marine life nearby. And, of course, fixing that broken underwater fiber optic cable, that's important, but it could take weeks.

CRONIN: Reporter Ashley Westerman in Manila. Thanks a lot.

WESTERMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.