Mausa and many of his volunteer team members had to balance their desire to help their community with their own pressing personal and family priorities and needs.
“It was around 2:00 am in the morning when I received Mausa’s call,” recounts Oxfam New Zealand Humanitarian Specialist Darren Brunk. “‘The wind is really bad. We’re in the worst of it now… My roof is gone.’ I could barely hear his voice, over the 190 km/h winds lashing his half-covered home, and the worried cries of his infant daughter. When Mausa finished his sentence, the line went dead.”
Mausa Halahala is the Humanitarian Coordinator for a national network of youth volunteers who serve as effective front-line responders to natural disasters in the Kingdom of Tonga, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural disasters.
On February 13, Mausa was in the eye of Tropical Cyclone Gita – the strongest storm to strike southern Tonga in a generation. The cyclone resulted in two deaths and more than 400 injuries. Some 2,000 houses were damaged or totally destroyed. The rain-fed water sources upon which Tongans overwhelmingly rely were contaminated or cut off. In total, over 70,000 people were affected, including Mausa and his family.
By mid-day on that Tuesday, while his wife and in-laws were starting to make repairs at home, Mausa’s team was distributing emergency supplies - tarpaulins, blankets, jerrycans and hygiene kits - and was working to assess the water situation.
“We saw that the storm did huge damage to people’s homes, including water tanks, wells, and cisterns,” he says. “Many Tongans use pit latrines, and these had flooded or overflowed, contaminating groundwater sources. We decided to focus on water filtration and storage around evacuation centres and community hubs – churches, schools and disability centres – so that each community would have places to access safe drinking water.”
Thanks to funding from the Humanitarian Coalition, the Canadian government and Oxfam Canada, Mausa’s team installed dozens of new filtration units that provided more than a million litres of free and accessible drinking water to this island population. The availability of clean water also prevented people from turning to water bottles, a high-cost alternative both personally and environmentally.
Throughout the emergency response, Mausa and many of his volunteer team members had to balance their desire to help their community with their own pressing personal and family priorities and needs. As Mausa explains, “after a day of filtering water or distributing relief items in the communities, some of us still had repairs and work to do in our own homes, or helping family, village neighbours or friends from church. Family and community is very important in Tonga.”