Uncovering the untold impact of the 2022 Tonga volcano and tsunami: How phone surveys reveal crucial insights
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Tonga’s economy and population are still recovering from the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano. To capture the immediate and ongoing effects of this disaster, the World Bank carried out phone surveys in partnership with the Governments of Australia and Tonga to get a better understanding of the situation faced by Tongan families.
Results from the surveys showed disruptions to livelihoods and access to health care; food insecurity; and loss of assets, where Tonga’s poorest and most-vulnerable families were hit the hardest. However, the results from these real-time remote assessments helped support a timely needs-based disaster recovery response.
Located 65 kilometers north of Tonga’s main island, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on 15 January 2022. The unprecedented event has been described as a ‘once in a millennium’ natural catastrophe, with vivid images of thick black ashfall; shockwaves of the eruption circling the earth for days; and the subsequent tsunami waves recorded reaching as far as Peru and Japan.
The social and economic impacts of the eruption were severe. Tonga was still recovering from Cyclone Harold (2020) and Gita (2018) – with Cyclone Ian (2014) also still relatively fresh in Tongans’ memories. The damage to the economy from the eruption and tsunami was estimated to be equivalent to US$182 million (approximately 421 million Tongan Pa’anga), or more than 36 percent of Tonga’s GDP. Communities from smaller Tongan islands required resettlement and roads, communication, and other vital infrastructure were damaged. The tourism industry was brought to a standstill and vital supply chains as well as fisheries and agricultural activities were heavily disrupted. In addition, the first local outbreak of COVID-19 happened straight after the disaster, further exacerbating the impacts on Tongans suddenly hit by multiple shocks.
A rapid assessment of damage is key to an effective and informed disaster response. With the Government of Tonga and alongside other development partners, the World Bank was able to undertake a swift assessment of the damage, to help guide response and recovery planning. However, logistical constraints – including very limited communication – were further compounded by the challenges of the country’s borders being closed as a result of the pandemic.
With support from the Government of Australia, the World Bank established the infrastructure to conduct high frequency phone surveys – building on work that had already been undertaken throughout the pandemic in Pacific countries including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. This tool – that has also been used by the World Bank in over 100 countries – allows for remote assessment of development needs following a disaster and was swiftly customized for Tonga.
The surveys were carried out twice in 2022 in efforts to better understand how local populations experienced the aftermath of the natural disaster. The findings helped to better understand the socio-economic impacts of the multi-dimensional crisis – the volcanic eruption, tsunami and the first local outbreak of COVID-19.
Highlights from the two rounds of the phone surveys – conducted in April-May and July-August – show the scope and severity of the impacts of the volcanic eruption, and that they were felt most intensely by the poorest and most vulnerable families in Tonga. Results included:
- Almost 20 percent of survey respondents went at least one full day without eating, a doubling of the pre-crisis level. Food insecurity was especially prevalent in areas of Tonga most heavily hit by the disaster, and among poor households.
- One in five households could not access routine healthcare after the disaster.
- Loss of key productive assets was reported by many households; for example, a third of households in the disaster-struck islands lost boats and canoes.
- Agriculture activities and tourism jobs were severely disrupted: about a third of workers in those sectors had not yet recovered their incomes at the time of the second survey (July-August 2022).
- Gradual recovery of incomes was observed in the second survey, though recovery was slower among women, and among those with informal work.
Beyond the physical impact of last year’s volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga, these results (above) show the social and economic impacts were immense, as well as showing how vulnerable are communities to natural disasters and the need for a continued support to build resilience to climate change.
It also underscores the value of phone surveys as a remote disaster response and monitoring tool. Fielding a face-to-face survey in a safe and timely manner is often difficult in disaster situations; and remotely assessing disaster damages with reliance on satellite imageries does not provide detailed individual and household-level information needed for a timely disaster response.
However, with the existence of required infrastructure, through high-frequency phone surveys we were able to support - remotely and rapidly – the urgent assessment of damages post-disasters and continuously monitor recovery of Tongans who were most affected.
In a region where disasters are frequent and becoming increasingly intense, assessment tools like phone surveys mean that communities can make better, more informed disaster response decisions, and life-saving responses can be delivered – even remotely –in a quick, informed and dignified way.
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