Volcanic eruption — Taal and potential economic damage
CROSSROADS TOWARD PHILIPPINE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PROGRESS - Gerardo P. Sicat (The Philippine Star) - January 15, 2020 - 12:00am

The eruption of Taal Volcano happened at a time with most people in the region unaware, and therefore unprepared.

The Phivolcs – or the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, the agency that is mandated to watch over volcanic activity in the country under the Department of Science and Technology – had issued as early as March last year a warning about the possibilility of an eruption.

The Phivolcs classifies volcanic alert levels into 6 levels, starting with zero, “0”, which means “quiet”, or no problem. The rating, “5”, means highest danger – “Hazardous eruption, with lava flowing and fountaining, ashfall, dangers to nearby communities.”

The level of warning at the moment is “4”, meaning “intense unrest, with hazardous eruption possible within days.”

It may be that we would not get to “5”, at all. Or, on some chance, that “5” would be reached. Mount Pinatubo, a very destructive eruption was “5”. It happened on June 15, 1991.

National preparedness and communications capacity. As is the nature of such cases, when they happen, there is inevitable destruction and damage to life and property. Another element in such situations would be commotion and confusion.

Hopefully, such unhappy outcomes could be minimized both in loss of life and of property. Mitigation of damage effectively is often all that we can hope to do in a catastrophic event.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) is a creature of the government that puts together all the national bodies that are concerned with responding to the threat of national catastrophes. It involves the national defense and agencies, local governments, specific bodies of government designed to assist in relief and in providing support, including health and social services.

At the moment, we are confronted with a case of volcanic eruption. But the array of possible disasters are many, and they all test a nation’s capacity to respond effectively.

Taal appears to be a deceptively small volcano. But it is potentially capable of a very destructive eruption. Located within a population zone of high density, the lake on which it is found threatens the possibility of a tsunami of boiling water heated by flowing hot lava.

Many major national emergencies of recent times come to mind. Comparable situations in other countries would be the tsunami disasters of Sumatra, Indonesia in 2004 and of Japan in 2011; or the current bushfires in Australia.

In our country, recent natural catastrophes include Typhoon Yolanda which devastated Tacloban and the outlying Visayan areas in 2014. The Mount Pinatubo eruption in the early 1990s stretched the nation’s resources and created great damage and realignments of physical geography.

One could think of a recent fear. Imagine the need to evacuate thousands of Filipino citizens from a destructive regional war that involved Middle Eastern countries employing OFWs are deployed.

The consequences and demands on resources could be massive. In such cases, the success of the response depends upon the competence of the personnel and the effectiveness of the agencies empowered to undertake the response. For such events, much continuous efforts at training and practice are needed.

At the same time, there are also limitations. Such realities are dependent on the country’s budgetary resources, on the level of skills of personnel, on the availability of relevant technology and logistical preparations, often measured by the amount of capital investments that are employed for training, practice and on supporting infrastructure.

Less developed countries do not have the level of technology and capital needed that richer countries confidently have. However, efforts at training and preparedness as well as in improving management could spell the difference in the level of success.

The response to the emerging situation was demonstrated during the immediate hours and days as the level 4 eruption event was happening. This was televised during the meeting and we could hear the dynamics of discussion, explanations and the airing of concerns during the TV coverage of the meetings of the disaster management council.

Some responses given to the national media as explanation of the problem were very enlightening. (I was most impressed by the Phivolcs spokesperson (Ma. Antonio Bornas) who communicated effectively, translating her technical knowledge in understandable language to listeners and skillfully avoiding operational issues that she was not competent to answer.

Yet, comparing our local TV stations, I would vote kudos to the CNN International weather correspondent. He explained in very interesting historical, and important detail, both with pictorials and relevant graphics, the nature of the Taal eruption and its potential dangers. The local TV stations could not match what should have been their strongest advantage.

Economic damage from a tectonic and seismological disaster. A destructive volcanic eruption depends on the baseline of natural formation underneath the ground that we can know only with a little amount certainty.

Our recent memory of Mount Pinatubo gives an indication of the magnitude of potential damage. We know that major eruptions do happen, but we may never know when exactly the big eruption really takes place. Actually, the most catastrophic of such events might not happen even in our lifetimes.

For the immediately possible that we might forecast, we could imagine what Mount Pinatubo had done to the immediate community of Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales where its great damage had been felt.

The area then encompassed was not as well developed as our Calabarzon area of today.

The Calabarzon region accounts for 14.6 percent of total Philippine GDP. Should the direction of potential damage veer more towards the north because of prevailing wind conditions, that would be in the direction of Metro Manila, where the National Capital Region is located. The National Capital Region accounts for 38 percent of total GDP. And both Calabarzon and the NCR account for almost 53 percent of total Philippine GDP, or more than half of it.

Many of the manufacturing regions here are tied up with the electronics industry, which is sensitive to the effects of dust.

Where the highest concentration of GDP value is located, there is also the highest potential toward disruption of the nation’s normal life. Here potential dislocations would not only happen to productive activities in agriculture and industry, but also in services.

My email is: gpsicat@gmail.com. For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: http://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

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