Tonga may be cut off from the outside world for more than two weeks after the volcano destroyed submarine cable

Tonga’s internet may be down for more than two weeks after a violent volcanic eruption cut off the kingdom’s only underwater communication cable and isolated the country from contact with the outside world.

Saturday’s eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano led to tsunami warnings and evacuation orders in neighboring countries, causing huge waves on several islands in the South Pacific.

Pictures on social media showed waves crashing against houses on the coasts.

The chairman of Tonga Cable, Samiuela Fonua, said there were two cuts in the cable, but until volcanic activity ceased at Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, repair staff would not have access to the cables.

“The condition of the site is still quite messy at the moment,” Mr Fonua said.

“We have been told that the volcanic activity is still largely ongoing.

The crew is awaiting permission from the Tongan government and the company to allow divers into the water and repair work can begin.

Fonua said there was also a risk that volcanic activity would damage the specialized vessel – CS Reliance – operated by the US company SubCom.

“There are not that many vessels around the world that could do this [repair]. “

Sir. Fonua said the Tonga Cable may be able to provide more information on the duration of the repairs next week, but at the moment “there is too much risk there”.

A map illustrating all the submarine cables of the South Pacific.
Submarine Internet cables in the Pacific region from May 2021.(Delivered: Dr. Amanda Watson and CartoGIS ANU)

To increase the delays, the ship will take a few days to get ready, after which its crew will have to travel to Samoa to pick up more equipment.

While some officials have satellite phones, the majority of Tonga has no way to communicate outside the small island nation.

Pastor Loni Vaitohi is a Tongan community leader based in Shepparton, Victoria, and said that not being able to contact loved ones or access updates on what is happening in Tonga had been “devastating” and “surreal” for relatives who lives in Australia.

“As soon as we see each other, we cry a lot. We pray a lot.

“And the question of mental health is exacerbated by this kind of helplessness and loneliness in this age.”

Tonga underwater volcanic eruptions
Fonua says the crew cannot assess the cable while there is still volcanic activity.(AP: Planet Labs PBC)

Dr. Amanda Watson, a researcher at the Australian National University’s (ANU) Department of Pacific Affairs, said the cable that runs between Tonga and Fiji had been damaged before.

In 2019, the cable was broken in at least two places by what is believed to be the anchor of a ship operating in an area that was to be banned.

The repairs in 2019 took about two weeks.

Dr. Watson said the cable was jointly owned by the Tongan government, a state-owned company in Tonga, and a private company.

“I imagine the three of them will work closely together to try to get the cable repaired as soon as possible,” said Dr. Watson.

She said Tonga was not the only Pacific island that relied on a single cable to connect with the outside world, hoping to see more cables in place in the future to avoid complete disruptions like this.

Dr. Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and said more work was needed to ensure the cables were more resilient in the future.

“Australia should work with like-minded partners to carry out table exercises around cable tension, because if cables break or become disrupted, it would be good if these countries had procedures in place to repair them.”

Fonua said another cable had been “on the table” even before the cable was cut in 2019.

“It’s a matter of securing funding and also the support of our Tongan partners.” he said.

“It’s not easy to build another cable around Tonga because it’s a small country.”

He said that due to Tonga’s location relative to Fiji and Australia, another cable would likely end up on the same side as the current one.

“So it’s going to be a tough one, but … the discussion is still going on at the moment,” he said.

“Hopefully we will come up with some solutions soon.”



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