Mitigating hazards

Orly Mercado

Posted on December 10, 2006

“Good” and “bad” volcanos

While waiting for the participants to settle down and begin a national workshop on Disaster Management Policy in Maldives, I had a chat with Deputy Minister Abdul Azeez Yoosuf of the Ministry of Atolls Development. I had met the Deputy Minister in the course of our consultations with Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Directors, and other high-ranking government officials as a consultant of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). These discussions had led to the proposed legislation we were to finalize.

The Deputy Minister expressed concern over the news that mudflows from Mayon volcano in the Bicol region of the Philippines have killed hundreds of settlers in villages at the foot of this active volcano which recently erupted. Many of the victims were residents who were evacuated from their high-risk homes during that eruption. They escaped the wrath of the volcano only to perish when rains unleashed by a strong typhoon caused the ash deposits to flow down the slopes of the volcano and bury them in the lahar.

The late top Filipino volcanologist Rey Punongbayan used to call Mayon a “good” volcano because of its frequent and small eruptions. He said that volcanoes like Pinatubo that remain dormant for centuries only to release their fury with a bang, as it did in 1991, were “bad.”

Still, Mayon can be deadly, as we now realize. In 2000 there was a build-up of magma indicating an impending eruption. As chair of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, I declared that our objective was zero deaths from the eruption. As a result of the determined efforts of local government officials, and the police and military we mobilized, the eruption did not claim any lives that year.

What has happened now that cost the lives of so many, who to this day, remain buried in their homes that have become their gravesites? Like many tragedies the answer lies in a confluence of events. Allow me, however, to have a take on this tragic event from the point of view of disaster management.

The tragedy of Mayon volcano is a sad indication that total disaster risk management has not taken root in the Philippines. It has not been rendered operational in the national or local level. We have not yet shifted our focus from the “disaster” side of the phrase to the “management” side. The objective should be to mitigate the hazards in a sustained manner. That means identifying the risks, reducing the risks, and building the capacities of communities to cope and be resilient. Moreover, it requires political will on the part of its national and local leaders to keep their citizens out of harm’s way. This is a daunting task, no doubt, given a rapidly growing population and grinding poverty.

If disaster managers had a broader strategic view of Mayon’s eruptions, then risk assessments would have indicated the threat of an indirect disaster resulting from its eruption. Poverty may not allow the luxury of strategic thinking for those who face a daily crisis of survival. It is government’s duty to save the poor from this myopia.

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