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FEATURE STORYNovember 14, 2023

A powerful force: building back stronger from Tonga’s tsunami


  • In 2022, one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded triggered a tsunami that devastated communities and infrastructure throughout the Kingdom of Tonga.
  • ‘Eua island, a small island in Tonga’s east, lost the full use of its vital port following the disaster, leaving communities and businesses struggling.
  • Now, work is underway to upgrade infrastructure like roads, ports and the airport to help Tongans get back to their normal lives with confidence.

Christopher Vaohea (pictured) is Chairman of the Fishing Association on ‘Eua Island, representing their views and interests to government and decision-makers. (Tom Perry/World Bank)

For Christopher Vaohea, the sea is a powerful force. As a fisherman from ‘Eua Island, in the Kingdom of Tonga, it is the source of his livelihood, his connection to others, and is his life’s passion.

“I’m a proud fisherman. … As fishermen, we protect our island,” Christopher said. “What we do, we provide for the community. We provide for the King. We provide for the people. Fish every day… That’s our life.”

He represents his community as Chair of the ‘Eua Fishing Association, advocating for fishermen's rights and safety. “I meet with the Prime Minister. I meet with the King. That's my job, to inform them of how we are as fishermen,” he said.

After experiencing the tsunami that struck the coast of Tonga in January 2022 – which was triggered by the eruption of Tonga’s Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano, he holds grave concerns about the safety of his fellow fisherman, particularly in the face of a changing climate.

“I was here that day, trying to retrieve my little vessel from here to the safety place at my house,” he says, gesturing to the port that was impacted by the massive wave. “I was already on my way with my little vessel home and the rest of the boats here were devastated…And I thought that day, ‘Is this a safe place for everybody; for the small fishing vessels or the bigger ones?’”

Taniela Fusimaholi, an MP for ‘Eua and former Project Manager for the Tonga component of the World Bank-supported Pacific Climate Resilient Transport Program, is dedicated to helping the community recover and become more resilient. “The tsunami destroyed part of the coastal area, but it also changed the perception of people … and this particular town was severely affected,” Taniela said.

For Christopher, returning to normal life has been challenging, highlighting the need for safer infrastructure. “We don’t know when the tsunami comes again, but we need a safer parking area for the little vessels. That’s what we need.”

The World Bank’s Pacific Climate Resilient Transport Program is helping Tonga address these needs. Satoshi Ogita, the World Bank’s Senior Transport Specialist, emphasizes building more resilient infrastructure to mitigate future climate-related damages.

“Tonga is one of the most climate at-risk countries on earth. Even before 2022’s tsunami, it had been hit by four major cyclones in six years: together with high tides, and floods. And so, the country’s essential transport infrastructure has also suffered.

“What we want to do is to strengthen the resilience of the transport infrastructure to avoid the future damage and the disruption of transport services,” Satoshi said.  

Chris returning to Eua after fishing

Christopher Vaohea says a place for fishing boats to park is vital for his island’s thriving fishing community. A new dedicated wharf for small vessels is being constructed as part of the World Bank’s Pacific Climate Resilient Transport Program. (Tom Perry/World Bank)

In Tonga, the Pacific Climate Resilient Transport Program is upgrading ports, roads and airports to withstand extreme weather events and provide a reliable transport network. The program is also giving the community the confidence they need to get back to their daily lives, with more belief in their ability to withstand future climate shocks.

“I think these things that are happening here, investment in the roads, investment in the port and airport, it’s going to make [the community] happy and try and move on with their lives,” said Taniela. “What people want in terms of climate resilient infrastructure is the fact that it's there, all the time … and built to the highest standards to withhold the very extreme effects of climate change.”

The program started by upgrading the port, arguably the most vital piece of infrastructure in the area, responsible for ferrying cargo, workers and tourists from the capital, Nuku’alofa multiple times each day. Even before the 2022 tsunami, the port was vulnerable, having been hard hit by Cyclone Harold in 2020 and king tides throughout 2021. The restoration of the port delivered immediate benefits to the community.

“It's good to see how bustling the port is [now]… And I think the people are looking forward to more work to be done on the port because this is key to the economic and commercial activities in Eua,” Taniela said.

Next, the program aims to support the fishing community by constructing a new boat jetty, passenger terminal, and a stronger breakwater, responding to Christopher and his peers’ calls for safer facilities.

“I'm particularly proud that people are willing to work together, despite extreme events that have happened,” Taniela said.

Christopher agrees that teamwork is the best way to create change.

“It's easier to come as a group, [rather than] as an individual … If you want to visit the King, or go fishing, we come as a team… And I think that's the most important thing,” he said.

This project is part of the World Bank-supported Pacific Climate Resilient Transport Program. The $338.6 million program, which supports governments in six countries through eight projects, is upgrading vital transport infrastructure – roads, maritime sites (ports, wharves, and jetties) and an airport – to help make communities more resilient to extreme weather events and climate change.

The entire program is funded through grants and credits delivered through the International Development Association (IDA) – the World Bank’s fund for the world’s most in-need countries.


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