Resilience Unveiled: Lions’ Response to Tonga’s Submarine Volcano Disaster

In late 2021, a massive submarine volcano erupted in Tonga, unleashing a catastrophic event. The eruption left a trail of destruction in its wake, with boats destroyed, neighborhoods covered in ash, and entire islands submerged. To make matters worse, an undersea cable became disconnected during the storm, leaving the true extent of the damage unknown to the outside world, while affected communities navigated uncertainty and chaos in a communication blackout. Eventually, when communication was restored and the news came out, nearby Lions in District 202K, including the Vava’u Lahi Lions Club in Tonga, knew they had to lend a helping hand, but they were not sure how.

“Unfortunately, when disasters like this strike remote locations, access is limited and their remoteness reduces the speed at which external help can get to them in times of emergencies,” Past District Governor (PDG) Roger Robinson says. Moreover, the impact of this disaster was extreme. Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai began erupting on December 20, 2021, and its ash cloud was visible from the distant capital city of Nuku’alofa, 70 kilometers (43 miles) away. The eruption peaked on January 15, 2022, almost four weeks later, sending massive ash clouds 57 kilometers (35 miles) into the sky. This caused panic among the local population, struggling to breathe amidst the choking ash. The Tongan government issued a tsunami warning after witnessing waves in Nuku’alofa.

As the news broke, Lions saw aerial footage revealing devastating scenes of sediment-laden waters, villages swept away or severely damaged, roofs buried under layers of ash, and coastlines permanently altered. They could not watch without feeling compelled to serve their neighbors.

“New Zealand has had a long association with the islands in the South Pacific and we are all located far away from the rest of the world, so we need to look after ourselves,” PDG Robinson shares. “When disaster happens in their area, we, as New Zealanders are immediately there to help. The eruption and the tsunami that followed in Tonga were no exception.”

District 202K installs water tanks in Tonga

Lions in District 202K realized clean drinking water was a very precious commodity they could offer in response to the disaster, so they decided to install water tanks and request Disaster Grant funding from Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF). District 202K, which includes Lions clubs in Fiji, Samoa, American Samoa, Vava’u Tonga, and Northern New Zealand, submitted and received US$24,100 in grant funds to support this project. Due to communication challenges and government-issued COVID-19 protocols preventing travel, LCIF and the Lions collaborated with the Tongan Red Cross to install nine water tanks to collect rainwater at three public schools on three different islands.

Since many of the Tongan islands are low-lying coral atolls, the groundwater could become contaminated with salt water, making it undrinkable. With the collection tanks, people can have access to clean water. This was a very challenging project due to the extent of the damage, their remoteness, and the limited facilities available on these islands. However, the Lions made it through these challenges with patience and perseverance. PDG Robinson even made the difficult journey to the islands to see the water tanks firsthand and enhance his relationship with the head of the Tongan Red Cross.

“It is a great feeling knowing you made a positive difference in the lives of those who have benefitted from this project,” PDG Robinson says. “LCIF grants have a long history of making a positive impact on the lives of those in need.” In spite of the chaos and bleakness of the eruption, the compassionate efforts of Lions in instituting this sustainable water source are not only aiding in the community’s healing and restoration, but also providing a ray of hope, giving citizens a glimpse of the promising future ahead.