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Tonga: Volcano Eruption and Tsunami

Volume 707: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if she will make a statement on the eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha‘apai volcano and subsequent tsunami in Tonga.

I am saddened and shocked by the situation in Tonga, and my thoughts are with all those caught up in the appalling devastation caused by the volcanic eruption and tsunami. My thoughts are also with the family of the British woman, Angela Glover, who died following the tsunami. We are supporting her family and are in contact with the local authorities.

On 15 January, a series of eruptions from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha‘apai underwater volcano were heard and felt across Tonga. Shortly afterwards, a tsunami hit the islands, including the main island of Tongatapu and the capital Nuku‘alofa. There were reports of waves between 5 metres and 10 metres high, and the eruption caused waves as far away as Peru. The explosions have left Tonga covered in a layer of thick volcanic ash. New Zealand and Australian defence forces conducted surveillance flights, which reported catastrophic damage on Atata island, Mango island and Niniva island. Full details of the humanitarian impact are still unknown, but there are estimates that up to 80,000 people will have been affected.

The UK is providing vital humanitarian support: working closely with our Australian and New Zealand partners, we have provided 17 pallets of supplies, including 90 family tents, eight community tents and wheelbarrows, specifically requested by the Tongan Government. That support is en route to Tonga on Australia’s HMAS Adelaide and is expected to arrive the day after tomorrow. The Royal Navy ship HMS Spey should arrive in Tonga on 25 January. Supplies to be delivered by HMS Spey will include bottled water, sets of personal protective equipment and first aid kits, and we are looking at further support.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies disaster relief emergency fund has released £345,000 to the Red Cross Society of Tonga to support its response in assisting the affected communities. The UK is a significant donor to the DREF. More generally, since 2015 Tonga has received more than £25 million of UK aid through our core funding to multilateral institutions. The UN is deploying a crisis expert to co-ordinate the response, and the UK is funding that deployment.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. The Tongan Government have called the eruption an “unprecedented disaster”. A volcanic blast visible from space, more powerful than an atomic bomb, it has affected 85% of Tongans through not just the eruption itself, but ash, which now poses a threat to drinking supplies and public health, and the tsunami that swept away their homes and washed Lisala Folau out to sea. He said:

“When I was in the water I remember going under eight times. My legs are disabled and don’t function as well”.

He clung to a log for 27 hours and, miraculously, survived.

Tonga may be a long way away, but it is a Commonwealth partner and ally and a long-standing friend. The Tongan high commissioner has asked me to convey their thanks to the British people for their support. I hear what the Minister says, but she will know that none of the money going to Tonga is new. Why have we not promised any new bilateral aid, since we have not given them a penny this year? Does she regret the decision to cut aid to our Commonwealth partners more generally by £500 million, and does she accept that the aid cut leaves us responding to disasters such as this with one hand tied behind our back? Under our presidency of COP26, attention was rightly given to the vulnerability of small island developing states such as Tonga. Does she agree that unless we help Tonga to recover fully from this crisis, it will struggle to put in place the necessary mitigations for the even greater climate crisis?

Will the Minister also answer the following questions? What conversations has she personally had with Tongan counterparts? She mentioned supporting one family, but are there other UK nationals needing support in Tonga? Can she clarify the role of HMS Spey in further operations, especially given Tonga’s zero-covid approach? Finally, I note the drift and delay in the Government’s response to the crisis. It took nearly a week for any kind of an announcement—an announcement made by press release. I tabled named day questions that were due last Friday, but I have yet to hear back. Is that indicative of what happens when development is relegated from its seat at the Cabinet table?

Tonga and the UK have deep historical ties and are both Commonwealth members. Tonga is a low-lying state, extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, as the hon. Lady points out, and to natural disasters. We are working with other Commonwealth members, including Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, to support Tonga as it recovers from this damage. It is absolutely right that we should work hand in hand with our partners.

The hon. Lady asked about communications. As she knows, connectivity has been affected throughout Tonga, including the undersea cable. Repairs to that cable are due to start towards the end of this week, but I am told it will take up to two weeks to restore it. In the meantime, the satellite telecommunications have been invaluable. As the hon. Lady will know, our high commission in Tonga reopened just last year, and our high commissioner has been using her satellite phone not only to communicate with the crisis centre in Wellington but to give support to British nationals. As for our ongoing support, the 17 pallets requested by the Tongan Government have been sent, and, as I have said, HMS Spey is on its way and due to arrive shortly with, for example, water and urgently needed health supplies.

I cannot comment any further, because we are continuing to monitor the situation and work with partners to assess the full need—which is also why the United Nations crisis management is so important, and that is what we are funding.

No one could fail to be moved by the pictures of the devastation in Tonga that has followed the tsunami, but there are good links between Tonga and our country, not least through some of the fantastic Tongan rugby players who are playing here—including Malakai Fekitoa, who has set up a relief fund that has already raised £50,000. Malakai plays for the Wasps in Warwickshire, and the club has said that it will donate 20% of its ticket revenues from the match that will take place this weekend. Will the Minister join me in applauding the rugby community for coming together and supporting Tonga in the way that it always would?

I absolutely do pay tribute to those rugby players for all they are doing to raise funds for this urgent situation, and wish the Warwickshire Wasps well in all their matches. I do not know how they intend the money they are raising to be distributed, but I should be more than happy to make contact with my hon. Friend and perhaps put him in touch with the DREF so it can ensure that the money reaches those who need it on the ground.

Like many others, Opposition Members have been shocked by the scenes and personal stories coming from Tonga, and, with communications difficult, I fear that there is still bad news to come. I know the whole House will join me in expressing our complete solidarity with the people of Tonga, and passing our condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the tsunami and the volcanic eruption.

Tonga and the United Kingdom have deep and abiding relationships, not just in respect of education, culture and the armed forces, but across both codes of rugby—including rugby league, which I know you will appreciate, Mr Speaker; it is not just rugby union that has the civic society reach. I understand that it is at Coventry that the Wasps play, but let us leave that one there. It is fantastic to hear that clubs are joining together across civic society to help out with the crowd funding for this terrible disaster.

It is right that the UK is stepping up to the plate to offer support. I commend the high commission for the work that it has already undertaken to support the people of Tonga, working closely with the Australian and New Zealand defence forces to deliver aid speedily. It is so important for things to be done speedily in the Pacific. That support will clearly need to be maintained to ensure that Tonga can rebuild and recover in the short to medium term, and, given our close links, we should continue to do that. Our support should not be just a knee-jerk reaction now; it should be sustained.

I have four asks of the Minister. First, which additional assets, if any, are being deployed to Tonga or are under consideration for deployment once the Spey effort has concluded? Secondly, may I press the Minister on the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) about the need for rebuilding in the context of the cuts in development aid? Thirdly, what is the medium to long-term strategy for the region? What conversations has the Minister had with regional partners to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and sustained approach? Finally, what specific assessment has been made of the impact that the eruption and tsunami will have on the covid effort specifically, and of how the UK can assist in health protection?

These are difficult days for the people of Tonga, and our response in the House has the potential to be of great relief and comfort to them in their hour of need.

I absolutely recognise the rugby league contribution in Tonga. In fact, I have fond memories of attending an international rugby league tournament in Hawaii in the 1990s, when I first saw the Tongans play—but let us return to more serious matters.

HMS Spey will arrive in Tonga tomorrow, 25 January, but we are considering further support. The deployment of the UN crisis expert will help to co-ordinate that response, which is why we are funding it.

On official development assistance budgets, we maintained our rapid response capabilities in close coordination with the Australian Government, and that means that the support we are providing is tailored to the needs of those affected. Since 2015, Tonga has received more than £26.9 million of aid, as I mentioned, through multilateral organisations. That includes the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others. Indeed, more than £300 million in aid has been provided to other, similar Pacific island states.

With reference to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), can we go one step further and consider whether Six Nations rugby games could hold a special collection for Tonga that could then be match-funded by the British Government, so that everyone would have the chance to contribute in a sport to which Tonga has contributed so much itself, and the Government can play their part too?

I would be more than happy to discuss with my hon. Friend how rugby fans can help the people of Tonga.

And this year we have the rugby league world cup, which Tonga is meant to be playing in, so we need to give it what support we can.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on asking the urgent question. The House is united in our sadness for the people of Tonga, and we want to see what we can do to assist the efforts that have been outlined today. I am very struck by the suggestion that the Six Nations could make a contribution or hold some sort of fundraiser. I told the Scottish Rugby Union that we would be very strongly behind that to help the Tongans in their time of need.

I acknowledge what the Minister has outlined about the aid that has been requested and is on its way to Tonga, but we really must reassess the cuts that have been made, particularly to the emergency disaster relief fund—from £500 million to £35.4 million. We cannot do more with less, and under this Administration we have seen a deliberate and wilful cutting of capacity to deal with climate change, international development and emergency responses. I urge that we continue our long-term engagement with Tonga and the wider world, and get those budgets back up to the levels they need to be at for the challenges ahead.

We remain a world leader in international development. In 2020, we were the world’s third largest donor. We have rightly been looking at how that aid is best used, which is why during the conference of the parties and in the run up to it, we announced that more funding from the UK would go towards international climate change. That is particularly important for supporting small island developing states in their adaptation and resilience programmes. It is also why it is so important that we work towards delivery of the $100 billion climate finance goal. In Glasgow we also announced the global goal on adaptation and the Glasgow dialogue on loss and damage, and that will help better coordinate financial support when there are extreme impacts such as this. We are leading in our work on climate change through COP and through our ODA.

I am reassured by what the Government are doing in sending aid to Tonga. It is one of the longest-serving members of the Commonwealth and a real friend of the UK. The islands are largely covid-free and there are some concerns that aid workers are isolating on arrival and food is being quarantined, and that is delaying the relief operation somewhat. What discussions has my hon. Friend had on urgently speeding up the process so that the people of Tonga can be helped as fast as possible?

That is an excellent question. Covid-19 has had little effect on Tonga directly, because strict border controls have meant no cases in the community, although there was one case in quarantine on 27 October, which was contained. However, the border closures have deeply affected the tourism industry and impacted the economy. That will be something for ongoing discussions between Tonga and those who are seeking to provide support with humanitarian aid.

It is all well and good to talk about how much money is being given to Tonga, whether in aid or through climate adaptation finance, but the fact is that Tonga is expected to pay more than $18.5 million in debt repayments this year, with a lot of it going to China, and the International Monetary Fund lists Tonga as being at high risk of debt distress. In my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on small island developing states, I met the Jubilee Debt Campaign earlier today to talk about how SIDS struggle to access comprehensive debt relief. The existing G20 schemes fall well short of helping SIDS. What can the Minister do to ensure that we do not give to Tonga with one hand and take away with the other?

The hon. Lady rightly raises the impact of Chinese debt. China increasingly seeks long-term strategic influence in Pacific island countries. As the Foreign Secretary stated last week, Russia and China are working together more and more to assert their dominance over the western Pacific. It is estimated that no fewer than 44 low to middle-income countries have debts to Beijing that represent in excess of 10% of their GDP. The UK is working and will continue to work with international partners, including to help countries avoid loading their balance sheets with debt that they cannot afford.

I thank the Minister for her statement and echo the words from throughout the Chamber about our solidarity and support for the people of Tonga. I welcome the fact that we are working closely with our close allies in Australia and New Zealand to support the people of Tonga and very much welcome the Minister’s statement that the UK is redeploying military assets to provide humanitarian support for Tonga. Does my hon. Friend agree that this situation shows the importance and strength of the Commonwealth? We pull together and really help out when partners are in need.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Commonwealth is an incredibly important partnership. In fact, the Foreign Secretary was in Australia only last week. In this instance, there has been great support from Australia and New Zealand and from the Fijian authorities, who intend to send a cargo vessel with items requested by the Tongan authorities, which is expected to arrive on the 28th of this month.

How can the Minister possibly claim that the UK is leading in this kind of response when the severity and frequency of natural and climate disasters is only increasing yet the UK budget for response is falling significantly and dramatically? Will she confirm whether the costs of the HMS Spey will also be counted—we might say double-counted—towards NATO’s 2% target for military spending?

We should be praising our Royal Navy for its very swift action. It is remarkable that HMS Spey is due to arrive the day after tomorrow. We should be deeply grateful to members of the Royal Navy for all they do to support people in trouble around the globe.

Tonga is a long-standing friend and partner to the UK, not least through its membership of the Commonwealth, and the UK has a long and proud tradition in respect of disaster relief. Will my hon. Friend confirm that those involved in the delivery of relief, including our excellent Royal Navy, are working to deliver it as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend asks a good question. We are endeavouring not only to deliver relief as quickly as possible but to deliver the supplies that the Tongans themselves have identified that they need. That is what will happen with the first pallets, which are due to arrive the day after tomorrow, and then with HMS Spey when she arrives.

My heart goes out to the Tongan people. Many of us were saddened by the shocking scenes and the devastation brought about by the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha‘apai volcano and the ensuing tsunami. Our international development budget cuts and the cuts to emergency and disaster relief are widely documented, and the poorest communities around the world lament them. Will the Minister ensure that we give the maximum possible support to our friends in Tonga and that that support is sustained into the medium to long term and does not cease immediately after the current crisis has ended?

As I have said, we remain one of the largest donors—in fact, the third largest donor—of international development aid in the world. We are giving the support to the Tongan people that they are requesting at the moment, and it is right that, right now, we focus on the emergent needs. Sadly, we know that full recovery from incidents such as this can take some time, but that is why we are working with the UN, and with our friends in Australia and New Zealand and others in the region.

The tsunami and the effects of the volcano eruption brought back painful memories for many of us who lost friends and relatives in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, so we know the pain that many are suffering. We wish Commander Proudman and his crew on HMS Spey the very best for their mission there, but will the Minister look seriously at the long-term consequences of this? The UN estimates that 60% to 70% of livestock-owning households have seen animals perish on the islands. The agricultural sector in Tonga accounts for 65% of the country’s exports. When the Minister is looking at what medium and long-term support we can offer, can we also include ensuring that some of the poorest farmers in the world—the poorest farmers in Tonga—are getting the support that they need to get back on their feet?

As I have said, in addition to the immediate needs, we are also looking at further support. However, we do already give significant funding to Tonga and other Pacific island countries. We tend to do that through our core funding to multilateral organisations, including the World Bank, the Green Climate Fund and the Asian Development Bank. Indeed, we estimate that, since 2015, the Pacific island countries have received more than £357 million of UK funding through those organisations. It is often best to work with partners through that type of organisation to make sure that the best long-term support is given.