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From October to April each year, the kingdom of Tonga is often rocked by cyclones which damage infrastructure, destroy homes, and bring down vital communications systems.
To help with early warning, the Tongan government received assistance from Japan to help improve the speed and stability of information transmission in the event of a disaster.
The population is spread over many islands mostly in low-lying coastal areas, where response efforts are often difficult.
Japan offered US$26m to establish a Wireless Communication System called the Nationwide Early Warning System (NEWS).
Senior Engineer Lui Falemaka says the aim of the project is to inform the public as quickly as possible and disseminate any received information in a short amount of time.
“Once the meteorologist receives anything, a warning, our advisory will trigger all the alarms advising the people live from the meteorology office at the airport,” Falemaka says.
This new system includes an Emergency Radio Communication System, an Early Warning Alert System, and a Medium Wave Radio Broadcasting System.
The team were able to put the new equipment to the test when a minor earthquake occurred on the main island of Tongatapu.
Falemaka says, “there was an earthquake and automatically the meteorologist triggered the alarm advising the people straight away.”
“Everyone got the same message at the same time and they started to evacuate. It was less than 90 seconds.”
‘Alifeleti Tu’ihalamaka is the Director of Communications at the Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communications (MEIDECC).
He is enthused with the new system, which enables them to make contact to all of Tonga’s islands, and other organisations including the National Emergency Management Office, Broadcom, the Armed forces, Police, and Fire departments.
“This network [also] goes all the way to the Niua’s and we can talk from Tonga all the way down there – first time.”
The project was due to be completed in 2020 but the Hunga Tonga volcanic eruption and Covid-19 prevented that from happening.
More than 500 medium-wave radios and around 80 warning sirens are located in villages across the Kingdom to warn people.
“We are trying to set up a system where we can talk to Fiji, Samoa, and New Zealand,” says Tu’ihalamaka.
“Right now we can talk on HF radio, not the VHF radio, so that system will contribute to this system right here in order for us to talk to Fiji, Samoa, or any Pacific Island country. That’s up and coming.”