Tonga ǀ Cash-for-work helps Ha’apai community to recover from Cyclone Ian

One of the many vegetable plots in Lifuka. Credit: Sheryl Ho/UNDP.

Today, it’s a different scene in Ha’apai compared to January after Tropical Cyclone Ian, a Category 5 system - the most powerful ever recorded in Tongan waters - passed directly over the northeast islands of Ha’apai.  Many homes repaired, much of the debris removed, fences for livestock rebuilt, continued and regular harvesting of vegetables and crops, tourists have returned and women are weaving again.

Described by many as the worst cyclone to ever hit Ha’apai, pictures and video footage of the destruction said it all. So much so, when the cyclone hit, many people were not prepared and within a day, the island was declared a state-of-emergency by the Government of Tonga. First responders included the Red Cross, National Emergency Management Office in Tonga, and a number of non-government organizations and religious denominations brought much needed support to Ha’apai. These included food and water, tents for shelter and counselling services.


  • The project provided immediate livelihood recovery solution for the people of Lifuka, Foa and ‘Uiha. 626 people participated between April and June 2014 in the debris removal component with a direct disbursement of TOP$93,750. While 723 people participated livelihoods recovery component in July for two weeks with a direct disbursement of TOP$309,300.
  • In the livelihoods component, 723 people formed 73 groups to participate in the project. There were 31 men-led and 42 women-led groups.
  • Vegetable farms and fencing for livestock have benefitted around 4441 people at the community level.
  • The Ha’apai Group of islands is comprised of 62 islands but only 17 are inhabited with a total population of 6650. When Cyclone Ian hit the island, a total of 4000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres, mostly churches.

Teisa Palu ‘Ofa from Hihfo village in Lifuka was at home when Cyclone Ian hit. The strong winds and rain blew the roof of her home that she shares with her husband, mother and six children. They found shelter with a neighbour but could not save much of their home.

“The water rose so high that almost all of our belongings were damaged or washed away. Our kitchen was badly damaged as well,” she recalls.

Teisa was one of many from the island of Lifuka who participated in the UNDP-supportedPost Cyclone Livelihoods Recovery and Cash-for-Work in Ha’apai, Tonga project, partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Ministry of Internal Affairs including the Office of the Governor of Ha’apai. Under this project, UNDP provided assistance to the affected communities in Lifuka, Foa and ‘Uiha to facilitate their transition from emergency relief to longer-term development and sustainability through the provision of temporary income generation and livelihoods recovery.

The debris removal component involved sorting debris by hazardous and non-hazardous debris. It also promoted recovery, reuse and recycling when possible. Participants were equipped with safety equipment and tools, and first aid training provided by the Ha’apai Red Cross. Debris was cleared from public and private lands of some of the elderly. In the livelihoods recovery component, debris that that could be recycled were used to rebuild fences for livestock. Identified vacant plots of land was cleared to prepare for farming with seedlings ranging from cabbage, beans, tomatoes, carrots and beans provided to groups.

Kepueli Ioane, Secretary to the Governor of Ha’apai added that since the project, he has seen many changes in Ha’apai. “After (Cyclone) Ian, there was a lot of debris everywhere. People were in a state of shock. Pigs roamed everywhere. The connection with the cash-for-work programme to peoples’ recovery was very effective. Everyone got involved and we tried to address the needs of men, women, youth and the elderly.”

Mr Ioane emphasized that the debris removal was crucial to Ha’apai’s recovery. Once the debris was cleared, this allowed people to return to their farms to recover what crops they could and start clearing the land for replanting.

Other than the main administration centre in Pangai on the island of Lifuka, where only a handful of employment opportunities are available, the majority of the Ha’apai community rely on income from weaving, small-scale tourism, fishing and agriculture, and remittances. 

Before Cyclone Ian hit, Teisa supported her husband on the family farm and wove mats for income. Up until recently, she has been able to get back into weaving as there was very limited supply of pandanus.

“I was very happy to work in a group of women,” she said. “The incentive provided by the cash-for-work funds helped me to recover food for my family and buy clothes for my children”.

Teisa is still in charge of the vegetable plot located next to her house, that her group of seven women planted as part of the livelihoods recovery for their families immediate needs.

Kalisi Finau from Pangai village in Lifuka said she was with a group of women weaving mats but was forced to seek shelter when Cyclone Ian elevated to Category 3. The home she shares with her husband and four children was badly damaged. Like many, their income comes from sculpturing and fine mats.

“What made me want to join the cash-for-work project was to support my family with the cash earned and to recover what we lost from the cyclone,” said Kalisi. She added she participated in activities like fencing, planting cassava and sweet potato.

Commenting on the livelihoods recovery and cash-for-work project, Inoke Fotu Kupu, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Local Governments and Community Development in the Ministry of Internal Affairs said he has seen many changes in Ha’apai and impressed with the project. “I saw a lot of pictures after the cyclone hit Ha’apai. Now I’m here, I’ve witnessed how clean it is around the community and peoples’ properties. In the many years I’ve been visiting Ha’apai, I’ve never seen so many farming plots near peoples’ homes.” 

Teisa Palu ‘Ofa from Hihfo village in Lifuka shows how high the water rose when Cyclone Ian hit.
Teisa in the vegetable plot next to her home.
Recycling of roofing iron and wood to construct fences.
Fencing for livestock was a key feature of the cash-for-work programme.

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