Philippines’ weak spot: disasters

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: December 12, 2006

CAMALIG, Philippines: When Mayon, the volcano that looms over this town, spewed lava and volcanic debris earlier this year, Pio Nebres and other residents of nearby villages paid it little mind.

Why should they flee, he said, when they had survived more cataclysmic events in the past?

“We are used to them,” Nebres, 48, said of Mayon’s eruptions.

But on Nov. 30, in a disaster of a type almost wholly peculiar to the Philippines, Typhoon Durian loosened the volcanic debris and rocks that had accumulated around the volcano. Dozens of villages were buried and at least 613 people were killed. More than 700 are still missing.

“The topography of the Philippines is bad news from a natural point of view,” said Neil Britton, a disaster management expert at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. “Floods, earthquakes, landslides, droughts — you’ve got the whole sway here.”

The country’s 84 million people are widely dispersed. “So whenever a disaster occurs in the Philippines, it will hit something,” Britton said.

The Philippines is one of the most typhoon-prone countries in the world, with more than 20 battering it on average each year. Typhoons killed nearly 3,000 people between 2001 and 2005, according to official figures; more than 900 people have never been accounted for. Property damage from the storms totaled about $500 million — a truly vast sum here.

The country also lies on the so-called “Pacific Ring of Fire,” where geologists say 80 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur. Twenty-one of the country’s 220 volcanoes are active. Several of them, like Mayon, loom over human settlements.

The recent Mayon landslides were not the first time typhoons had combined with volcanoes to bring misery to the Philippines.

The spectacular eruption of the Pinatubo volcano in 1991, which was one of the largest in the last century, initially caused few casualties, thanks to the timely evacuation of almost everyone living within 30 kilometers, or about 20 miles, of the volcano.

But on June 15, when the eruption reached its climax, Typhoon Yunya swept in from the Pacific, washing millions of tons of tephra — airborne ash — out of the sky. Of the 300 people killed, most died when their roofs collapsed under the weight of the deposits, which fell like snow but congealed into something like concrete.

Communities near Pinatubo are still suffering. Each year, heavy rains cause new flows of volcanic debris in the surrounding valleys, ruining cropland and displacing villages.

International disaster relief experts credit the Philippines — still a largely impoverished country, with few discretionary resources — with major improvements in disaster mitigation since the Pinatubo eruption.

But its disaster-response infrastructure remains rickety, and the government has yet to perfect a means of alerting the rural population quickly and in a way that villagers can understand.

“Part of the problem is that government is relief-oriented, so that it reacts only after a disaster,” said Jun Lucero of the Manila-based Citizens’ Disaster Response Center, a nonprofit group.

In July 2001, the government evacuated nearly 50,000 residents around Mayon just before a major eruption. Despite devastating volcanic flows racing down the mountainside, the death toll was kept to zero.

Earlier this year, when lava and ash began spilling over the rim of Mayon’s cone, the government issued warnings to nearby villages and implemented evacuation plans.

When the minor eruptions tapered off during the summer, however, the risk of landslides was apparently underestimated. Nebres, whose home and farm were buried, says that his village was never warned of the possibility.

Officials insist that they had informed villagers near Mayon of a variety of risks, including the threat of landslides. But Nebres said that even if this were true, his family could not have picked up and left without help.

“Where would we go?” he asked.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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