In the concrete rubble on the beach of Kanokupolu, Tonga, the leaves begin to form a covering, green and shiny amid the dull grays of the rubbish in the sand. A year after the Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai eruption – a volcanic blast larger than Krakatoa that caused a spike in global warming, reshaped the ocean floor and wiped out two of the archipelago’s smaller islands – the devastation it has still visible, along with the wreckage of vacation resorts that once stood here, a repair work that has yet to begin.
Last year’s catastrophe, which affected about 84 percent of the Tongan population, was the third Pacific natural disaster in five years (it was hit by Category 5 cyclones Gita and Harold in 2018 and 2020) — a by-product of the global emissions that warm the planet, intensifying storms and droughts, increasing wind speeds and raising sea levels, increasing the risk to nearby populations. Although Tonga ranks 190th in the global carbon emissions ranking (the US is second), it is now one of many countries battered by people on far, wealthier shores, left to pick up the pieces to pick up. Aware of this grim fate befalling poor countries worldwide, conversations have begun on how to redress the injustice, largely coming down to one solution: climate reparations.
At the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt earlier this year, a “historic deal” was struck with a promise to create a fund that would compensate affected countries. Recommendations will be made at Cop28 (held in Dubai, ranked 28th for global CO2 emissions) at the end of this year. However, details remain vague on how or when they will take effect. Without them, it’s hard to see the UN’s proposed fund as anything other than a hastily applied Band-Aid, intended to soothe the guilty consciences of rich nations without understanding how they can really help the needy, or the address the causes of these disasters in the first place. As Tonga has discovered, being repeatedly lashed by the elements requires much more planning and input into prevention than just a rushed cleaning job.
The country certainly needs help. But having rich countries write a check is not enough. What Tonga (and countries like it) needs are crisis managers who have faced similar disruptions and are adept at rebuilding communities, and boots on the ground to ensure the money goes where it is really needed. In the immediate aftermath of last year’s eruption, some countries were quick to send resources, but they rarely matched the country’s needs, locals told me when I visited last month. For example, when stores were full of it, heaps of food piled into a row of ships on the wharf in Nuku’alofa, the capital, delaying other more urgent supplies that then took days to unload. Other gift items – trucks, clothes – were never even handed out.
Managing these well-intentioned arrivals was nearly impossible with so many more pressing matters to resolve, such as building homes for the former residents of the Mango and Atata Islands, all of whom were evacuated after their own homes were destroyed. The first residents were not able to move in until just before Christmas. This is a best-case scenario of what climate recovery would look like, in that the new build meets an immediate need, for which on-site knowledge and understanding were crucial in both planning and execution. But while these homes are an upgrade from the community homes they lived in 11 months after the blast, there’s no getting away from the fact that many now live as 10 family members across two rooms, have lost their jobs in resorts that were wiped out, and if adequate measures had been taken against climate change earlier, they would not now feel, as one mother told me, that they were left with nothing. Their only recourse now is to simply hope that another disaster does not strike.
The worry, of course, is that one will – and soon. The Pacific Ocean is particularly at risk: Kiribati, an idyllic atoll nation between Hawaii and Australia, has been swallowed up by the sea at such a rate that it will likely cease to exist in a few decades. Half of all households have been affected by rising sea levels, and six villages have already been completely relocated. The Maldives, Micronesia, and Tuvalu are also predicted to disappear within our lifetime, with rising emissions responsible for coastal erosion, plantation (and livelihood) destruction, and severe droughts and floods that they and other vulnerable countries routinely face. Fiji is bigger and richer, but it’s also not immune to the threat, with 65 percent of the population living within 5 kilometers of the coast.