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Tonga's Volcanic Eruption January 2022

Tonga’s volcanic eruption on 15 January 2022 was the largest recorded since the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. It triggered tsunami waves of up to 15m and ashfall covered an area of at least five square kilometres. As we see from the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle, clean-ups from this magnitude of disaster are no quick fix. Almost a year later, I witnessed some of the resulting devastation in Tonga, first-hand. Whole villages and resorts were wiped out. The sea spewed up vast amounts of plastic rubbish, generated by the wider world but landing on Tongan soil and adding to the misery. Tongan people however are highly resilient. Banding together, they have worked hard to recover crops, the bee population and more. Tongan people will continue to be a strong voice at global climate conferences.

When the volcano erupted, I immediately thought of my good friend Uili Lousi and his family. I was so keen to hear from them but it wasn’t until a week later that I was able to get messages to Tonga and was immensely relieved to hear that they were in good health.

Uili and I first met in 2019 after being introduced by Al Gore. We were both mentors involved in training the next generation of Climate Reality Leaders (part of the Climate Reality Project - I continue to be so impressed by Uili’s great passion and ideas for a sustainable Tonga and the role his nation can play on a global scale.

Tonga is a small country made up of 170 mostly uninhabited islands with a population of 105,000 people. It is the only remaining kingdom in the Pacific, and it plays a critical role in Pacific affairs. King Tupo VI is a regular speaker at global climate conferences on the need for climate change action and Uili is part of the Tongan delegation that you will also see presenting at the COP (Conference of the Parties), UN Climate Change Conferences.

Uili reached out to me recently and asked for my help in preparing for COP28 in Nov/Dec 2023.

“Lee, the universe has spoken to me, the timing is good, please come to Tonga and see for yourself how you can help,” he said so eloquently. His words always resonate with me, and I felt Tonga beckoning me with the opportunity to make a difference.

In total I spent three days in Tonga. Words are inadequate to describe what I saw; a whole village and resort totally wiped out by the tsunami and crops decimated. Yet, the true Tongan spirit and resilience was in abundant supply. Farmers report that some crops are growing back faster due to the richness of the volcanic ash dumping. Beekeepers have stepped up their efforts to boost numbers of beehives after 95% of the bee population was wiped out. The Tanoa Hotel now use their grounds for growing vegetables. Staff at the local waste authority say that the silver lining of the tsunami was the opportunity it has presented to help clean up the surrounding ocean. The shift towards circular economy thinking, with so little resources, is incredibly heartening.

My visit to Tonga gave me a renewed sense of purpose. Stories of human endeavour in the face of climactic catastrophe give me hope for our future and drive me to accelerate how I contribute to our joint future by leveraging my sustainability expertise. I look forward to sharing more stories and hopefully some successes as I work alongside our Pacific neighbours.

Tonga Volcano 2022
Remnants of a resort which bore the full brunt of the tsunami

Tonga Beekeepers
Meeting beekeepers who play a critical role in getting the agriculture sector back on its feet

The pristine beaches of Tonga are amazing. During whale season humpbacks cruise past
Tonga's pristine beaches

bricks from plastic
Experimental bricks made from shredded plastic and crushed glass. For Tonga, going circular is critical, especially with numerous resource constraints

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