January 24, 2022

Women trained as emergency first responders in Tonga through the Shifting the Power Coalition are mobilizing rapidly to distribute clean water to their communities after water sources were polluted by the volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The powerful eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on 15 January 2022 was the biggest the world has seen in 30 years and caused an enormous ripple effect across the region with major ashfall and a devastating tsunami.

The United Nations has said that about 84,000 people – more than 80% of the population – have been affected by the disaster, which has destroyed homes and infrastructure across Tonga.

Since 2016, ActionAid has been working with women’s rights organization, the Talitha Project in Tonga as part of the Shifting the Power Coalition, which aims to promote Pacific women’s leadership in response to disasters and climate change.  With training and resources from the Coalition, the Talitha Project is responding to the urgent needs facing young women and girls during this crisis.

Vanessa Heleta, Executive Director of the Talitha Project, says her team has provided emergency assistance, including water, masks, and clothing, to girls involved in their programs in the villages of Kanokupolu and Haau.

“Water is our biggest priority along with food, toilet paper, and dignity kits. Water and masks need to be distributed especially to children and young people. We are wearing masks and covering our arms and legs because the ashfall is causing rashes,” Vanessa says.

“We are thankful to be alive, but there is a long way to recover. Everyone is still in shock. We shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic, but now we need assistance.”

The Talitha Project is working with the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) in Tonga to drive an inclusive emergency response to the current crisis.

The Shifting the Power Coalition and ActionAid will support women’s leadership, including young women and women with disabilities as well as the LGBTIQ+ community and their locally-driven efforts to respond to the immediate and long-term recovery efforts.

The Pacific Humanitarian Team has identified psychosocial support to the affected population and ensuring access to hygiene and dignity kits as urgent priorities, alongside temporary shelter and access to food and safe drinking water.

Michelle Higelin, Executive Director of ActionAid Australia, says:

Women’s leadership is vital in ensuring an inclusive response to the tsunami and the Talitha Project is well placed to reach some of the most vulnerable groups in the community and to ensure young women are part of rebuilding their communities.

Women-led emergency response teams on the ground have said clean drinking water and dignity kits are urgently needed.

The Talitha Project is a founding member of the Shifting the Power Coalition established by ActionAid Australia in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam (2015) in Vanuatu and Cyclone Winston (2016) in Fiji.

As a regional alliance focused on strengthening the collective power, influence, and leadership of Pacific women in responding to disasters and climate change, the coalition brings together 12 women-led organizations in seven Pacific Island Forum countries and the regional Pacific Disability Forum.


For more information and interviews contact Jenna.Pudelek@actionaid.org or call +44 (0)7795 642 990 (UK based) or Milly.Atkinson@actionaid.org, +61 (0)414 860 238 (Australia based).

Notes to editors:

Shifting the Power Coalition: By bringing together a feminist network of women, working together to tackle the climate crisis, the coalition has been able to support diverse young women from seven Pacific Island Forum countries in becoming weather-ready and climate-smart. The project supports diverse, pacific young women to put forward locally-led solutions to climate change and mobilizes young women’s leadership to shift the power in disaster management in the Pacific.  

In Tonga, this initiative has seen a growing partnership between The Talitha Project and the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO), the Tonga Meteorological Office (Tonga Met), and the Ministry of Health to develop inclusive initiatives.

During recent training in November 2021, the Tonga Young Women Climate Change network, supported by the Talitha Project, developed plans of action in case of emergency scenarios such as a tsunami. 

Young women were supported to allocate different jobs to family members and organize their community’s preparedness such as storing clothes for protection and locating evacuation centers. These training activities have strengthened young women’s own capacities to respond to the current emergency facing the country. They have also enabled Tongan women to connect to a wider network which continues to share updates, preparedness strategies, and planning techniques across the region.