Tongan Government officially calls for Humanitarian Aid

11:50 am on 22 January 2014

The Tongan government has called for international help, nine days after the category five Tropical Cyclone Ian hit Ha'apai.


The Tongan government has officially requested international humanitarian aid following Cyclone Ian, nine days after it struck the northern islands of Ha'apai.

The category five storm, which killed one person and injured 14 others, displaced more than half the region's population of 8,000, damaged power lines and buildings, and wiped out most of the food crops.

Mary Baines reports.

The director of the National Emergency Office, Leveni Aho, says it has become clear that the lasting impact of the storm is greater than the capacity, expertise and resources of Tonga.

LEVENI AHO: Obviously the capacity here is limited and there's some areas that we need to cover that we don't have the local expertise and resources to do that. So that's why we are now seeking international assistance, to fill up those gaps.

Mr Aho says while it has received aid through donor partners on the ground, it has now made an official call for help so that specialised agencies like the United Nations can be activated. The UN resident coordinator, Osnat Lubrani, says there are gaps in food security, water, sanitation, education and shelter that need urgent assistance.

OSNAT LUBRANI: There has been important action taken both by the government, but also by the military and certainly by the friends of Tonga, the bilateral international partners. But at the same time from our visit it is clear there are still some important gaps in terms of the immediate needs in which action is needed as soon as possible.

Ms Lubrani says the medium to long-term needs of Ha'apai are enormous. She says the UN hopes to work with the Tongan government in food security, health and sanitation issues, and provide temporary schools for children due back soon. Ms Lubrani says in the past week, there has been a lack of understanding by some key ministries as to what humanitarian help could achieve.

OSNAT LUBRANI: There was a need for clarification on how humanitarian assistance comes. There was a lot of effort invested in collecting very detailed information rather than putting out the request for assistance so that we could come in earlier. But I'm very pleased this has now been resolved and we can move quickly.

In the past week, some aid agencies have criticised the Tongan government for not requesting help, saying it wanted to appear to be self-sufficient, or was too proud to ask for help. But the chair of the Tongan Advisory Council, Melino Maka says while the decision is long overdue, it is a huge victory for the victims.

MELINO MAKA: I think the government underestimated the scale of the cyclone and I'm really pleased they've actually come to the party and asked for help. It's quite a relief. I think it's a very wise decision.

The National Emergency Office has said it may cost between 21.5 and 27 million US dollars to repair devastated housing. Leveni Aho says this does not include the costs associated with other buildings, infrastructure and power. He says it is likely the government will discuss options for payment with affected home-owners.

LEVENI AHO: I think the details of that, how they go through to rehabilitate and rebuild, that will have to be something that will have to be discussed between government and affected people, how best that we will go forward on that. But I wouldn't comment at this stage how we are going to do that but I'm sure we will come in partnership with the affected people.

Representatives from the World Bank are expected in Ha'apai this week to assess the long-term economic costs of the cyclone.