Q&A: In Tonga, More Resilient Power Infrastructure Isn’t Only About More Reliable Electricity—it’s About Saving Lives

Article | 13 July 2020

With a population of about 103,000 people, Tonga is among the most vulnerable countries in the world to natural disasters. Cyclone Ian in 2014 and Cyclone Gita in 2018, for example, both caused immense damage to livelihoods and infrastructure in the island nation, including the country’s power supply.

When that happens, it’s a disaster for the likes of Dr ‘Ana ‘Akau’ola, the Acting Superintendent of Vaiola Hospital in Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital. The only radiologist in Tonga, Dr. ‘Ana relies heavily on the supply of reliable electricity to do her job. So when Cyclone Harold swept through Tonga in April, Dr. ‘Ana was pleasantly surprised when the hospital lost power for just one day—not weeks, as was the case for previous cyclones.

That resilience is the result of ADB’s ongoing support of Tonga Power Limited (TPL) to help enhance the climate resiliency of power lines, underground cables, and electricity poles—and improve the lives of Tongan people.

In an interview with ADB, Dr. ‘Ana talked about the challenges of operating a hospital with an unreliable power supply and how Tonga’s more resilient infrastructure has benefited the lives of doctors and patients in Vaiola Hospital.

This interview was conducted over the phone and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What does your job involve?

Since Tonga closed its borders to the world, I have been Acting Superintendent of Vaiola Hospital. I oversee hospital operations and much of my work is focused on the preparation for COVID-19, which has been ongoing since the beginning of the year. We are extremely lucky there are no cases here, but we are prepared.

As Tonga’s only radiologist, I run the radiology department at Vaiola and conduct radiology activities for the other smaller hospitals in the outer islands.

How important is a reliable flow of electricity to your job?

Everything we do in radiology needs electricity. From the computers I use to read my x-rays, the ultrasound machines, CT scans and the mammograms we perform. If the power goes off, I may as well go home. I cannot do my job.

Imagine what it is like if you are a hospital patient who relies on a ventilator to breathe and the power cuts out, or you are a surgeon and there is a power surge mid-way through an operation. Power cuts are life-threatening in those situations and generators can often take some time to start.

Unreliable power takes us back to what medicine was like 30 plus years ago—when we only had our knowledge, a stethoscope, and our hands as tools to make diagnoses.

These days we rely on electricity to power the machines we use to accurately diagnose patients sooner.

Have you noticed any improvements with the electricity supply lately—especially since TPL, ADB, and other partners have built up the resilience of Tonga’s power infrastructure?

Yes, I have noticed a big difference. It is clear the upgrading work that was conducted between Cyclone Gita in 2018 and Cyclone Harold in early 2020, has really paid off and made the powerlines and the grid more resilient to disasters. For example, after Cyclone Gita, at the hospital we were without power for nearly a week, causing major disruption for patients and staff. After Cyclone Harold earlier this year, in comparison, the power went out and it was back on the next day. Minimal disruption and minimal stress for all of us at the hospital. I have also noticed that since the upgrading work was done, we have had far fewer power surges. TPL have improved their communications with the hospital. If they need to temporarily turn off the power while they undergo upgrading or maintenance work, they give us plenty of notice so we can plan for it.