Updated: Nov 17
Since 1991 WFP collaborates with a vast network of Standby Partners consisting of public and private organizations complementing WFP’s operational capacity by providing staffing, equipment, and services. Standby Partnerships are activated in various job positions and provide crucial support to WFP operations in emergencies or when WFP needs specific technical expertise. In 2021, 104 experts supported 37 Country Offices, 5 Regional Bureaux, and Headquarters. To request and deploy experts Standby Partners please reach out to WFP Standby Partnerships team in the Emergency Operations Division at: email@example.com.
On 15 January 2022, the powerful eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha-apai underwater volcano in the Pacific left the archipelago of Tonga blanketed in ash and without communication and internet access. The eruption, the biggest in 30 years, triggered tsunami waves rising up to 15 metres and damaged the sole submarine cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world. About 84,000 people (more than 80 percent of Tonga’s population) were impacted by the volcano’s eruption. The Government of Tonga issued a State of Emergency.
Through the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) led by its Pacific team, WFP stepped up to support the re-establishment of communications. We spoke with Godefroy Ogyam, the Ghanaian Telecommunications Coordination Officer deployed in Tonga by NORCAP (part of the Norwegian Refugee Council) to coordinate the process and provide technical support to Government counterparts.
1. Why did you decide to contribute your time and experience as a Standby Partner?
I have been a Standby Partner with NORCAP for over 10 years, deploying as a Telecommunications Expert in 10 countries so far. I’ve had previous assignments with WFP (including during the Ebola response) but when I saw the job description for the Tonga mission I immediately applied, knowing it was going to be a different type of challenge. My previous missions focused on technical support, while the Tonga mission requires more coordination with Government actors. Furthermore, it is my first experience in the Pacific region.
2. What are your main tasks during this deployment?
The eruption caused severe disruption to communications in and from Tonga, as the undersea fibre communications cable connecting Tonga to the world and its own islands was severed in two locations. For several weeks internet and phone communications were off in most parts of the archipelago, which hindered assistance delivery. The first flight carrying assistance to Tonga was only able to depart 2 weeks after the eruption, once the main airport runway was cleared of the ash. Restoring connectivity became critical along with providing shelter, safe drinking water and food assistance.
I was deployed in this challenging context to conduct assessments of the ECT infrastructure, evaluate equipment needs, provide training on drones and other connectivity solutions. Moreover, I coordinate the activities of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster chaired by WFP and represent the ETC in inter-agency meetings with key stakeholders aiming to support the response in Tonga until national services are fully restored.
Tonga is one of the most hazard-prone countries in the world. It borders the Pacific volcanic ring, increasing its risk of earthquakes and tsunamis. Therefore, my work also includes emergency preparedness and helping the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) and relevant line ministries improve their response capacity in order to prevent future disasters. Though the ETC, WFP and partners are strengthening preparedness activities by placing equipment in easily accessible locations in case of emergency, training local personnel to develop early warning systems, running disaster simulations, and creating national emergency telecommunications plans.
3. How do you work with all the WFP teams and stakeholders?
Collaboration is key in the ETC field, so I interact with a broad range of Tongan partners. To facilitate my day-to-day work, I am based in the premises of the Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communications (MEIDECC), who leads the emergency telecommunications response.
The MEIDECC is in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, whereas WFP Pacific Multi-Country Office serves 12 countries (including Tonga) from Fiji. Although I am physically separated from WFP team, I work under the supervision of WFP Regional ETC Coordinator for the Pacific region. We speak every day and I definitely feel well integrated both in the WFP and the MEIDECC teams.
4. What challenges have you faced during your current assignment?
We work as quickly as possible but there have been logistical challenges in reaching remote areas of Tonga to assess damage and assist affected populations, as well as shipping communications equipment internationally by air or sea. At the beginning of my mission, the severely damaged communications systems were hampering our capacity to conduct rapid assessments and interact with the Tonga National Emergency Management Office (NEMO). Fortunately, the situation has now improved.
5. What do you consider your top achievements and where do you feel you work has made an impact?
When I first joined Tonga I was stunned by the extensive damage to the telecommunications infrastructure. Since then, two new outdoor NoSaCo (Nomadic Satellite Communication) VSAT Systems have been deployed successfully to respond to the emergency, ensure critical communication within government offices and provide affected population with means to contact family.
The international section of the undersea communications cable has also been repaired. Data, SMS, and voice services are available again, provided by the two national agencies in Tonga (Digicel and the Tonga Communications Corporation).
However, communication with the outer islands of Tonga remains a challenge as the domestic section of cable (also damaged during the volcanic eruption) has not yet been repaired. The domestic cable repairs will take until late 2022 but reparations are in good progress. In the meantime, satellite phones and portable connectivity devices have been dispatched as means of communications for people on the outer islands of Tonga.
Overall it’s really a gratifying mission and I enjoy witnessing the results that have been achieved so far.
John Dovale, WFP Regional ETC Coordinator for the Pacific region, confirms that “Godefroy is an amazing team player whose dedication, professionalism, diplomacy and technical attention to detail are an invaluable asset to the ETC response and capacity building mission in Tonga."