Ashfall… again
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 15, 2020 - 12:00am

In parts of southern Metro Manila on Sunday night, people in the streets wore caps or wrapped their heads in towels or else used umbrellas not to keep out rain, but ashfall.

It wasn’t ash as we know it, but gritty, heavy particles blown by the wind from huge columns belched out on Sunday afternoon by Taal Volcano. The particles were heavy enough to topple trees in the areas near the volcano, including Tagaytay City and parts of Batangas and Cavite.

It wasn’t the first time that parts of Metro Manila experienced ashfall. The morning after Mt. Pinatubo’s apocalyptic eruption in June 1991, I woke up to a neighborhood covered in dirty white.

That calamity was quickly overshadowed by images of people fleeing from that monstrous cloud of volcanic fragments and the lahar from hell rampaging across Zambales and Pampanga, killing everything in its path and permanently altering the map of Central Luzon.

What did we learn from that cataclysm?

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One thing I learned: volcanic materials boost soil fertility. For the first time, the mango tree in our yard bore fruits twice that year, and in the next few years. No wonder the land around Mayon Volcano in Albay is so fertile.

We’ve learned that dried lahar can be used to produce sturdy but light materials for construction, such as bricks, and for items such as plant pots, furniture and handicraft. Near the Pinatubo trekking area, there is now a popular mud spa.

As for the other lessons – how many of us stored masks at home for use in case of another ashfall?

We kept N95 masks during the SARS scare in 2002-2003, and held on to the masks for New Year’s Eve festivities. This year’s revelry, however, was the most quiet (and saddest, without the noise and lights) in my neighborhood, and for the first time there was no need for masks.

After Pinatubo, how many people moved away from active volcanoes? Taal is the most active in this country, followed by Mayon. Instead of seeing people move away from the volcanoes, however, it has been an unending task to keep people from settling within the permanent danger zones. And as already mentioned, because of the fertility of volcanic soil, there’s just no stopping farming along volcano slopes and the surrounding areas.

After Pinatubo’s surprise eruption, some experts warned that even the inactive Mt. Makiling, located within the Laguna volcanic field, might emerge from dormancy and erupt.

But even combined with repeated warnings about the “Big One” along the Marikina Valley Fault, which cuts through Metro Manila all the way to parts of Laguna and Cavite, the Makiling area is one of the most populated in Laguna. And developers have built residential and commercial properties right along the Marikina Valley Fault.

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This attitude is not unique to fatalistic Pinoys. I’ve seen it among people in the disaster-prone countries within the Pacific Ring of Fire, from Japan to New Zealand.

I guess the thinking is that people can’t live in fear of nature’s whimsical fury. S*** happens, and if it does, the best we can do is cope. Or even watch the spectacle – such as during Mayon’s periodic eruptions, when tourists can watch the lava flowing down its slopes.

So by way of disaster mitigation, adaptation and resilience building, what have we done since Pinatubo?

Around Taal, affected residents are complaining about the lack of warning from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Phivolcs officials have explained that last Sunday’s surge of volcanic activity occurred so suddenly.

Last Sunday’s explosion of Taal was followed by rain, which turned the ashfall into thick mud that made driving dangerous especially in poor visibility.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar said the ashfall has destroyed coconut, coffee and vegetable farms in the affected areas. The exceptionally sweet pineapples of Tagaytay are hardier and may survive, he told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News.

But Dar has written off the tilapia and other fish species in Taal Lake, which acquire special succulence from the unique aquatic ecosystem in the volcanic crater lake. The increase in sulfuric content and change in water temperature spell doom for the fish.

Dar said his department is prepared to distribute seedlings to farmers for replacing the crops destroyed by the ashfall.

What can’t be replaced are the livestock killed by the ashfall or because the owners, for their personal safety, were forced to abandon the animals.

This can be traumatic if the evacuees depend on the livestock for their livelihood. Even more personally wrenching is if evacuees are forced to leave their pets behind because animals are not allowed at evacuation centers. In Bangladesh, there are evacuation centers for livestock, and shelters where people can stay with their pets. Our disaster mitigation officials can consider such facilities.

It was good to see rescuers also attending to livestock and pets left behind by the fleeing residents, and even washing birds that were covered in mud.

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With the ongoing activity, Phivolcs has warned that a volcanic tsunami or lateral eruption from magma movement might occur, which could swamp lakeshore communities with powerful waves or, worse, a rush of super-heated volcanic fragments traveling across the lake at 60 kilometers per hour. I think we have near-zero preparedness for such disasters.

Even if such cataclysms occur, if ever everything settles down, you can be sure that many of those displaced will be back in the affected areas.

From Monday night until early yesterday, over 200 earthquakes were recorded in several parts of Batangas. Fissures appeared on the ground, some of which seismologists said were serving as steam and chemical vents. Those types of damage would take time to repair.

There’s always the possibility that the devastation could last a long time, as in the lahar areas in Central Luzon that remain uninhabitable.

As in Mayon and Pinatubo, the permanent danger zone around Taal may have to be expanded after this activity. And the danger zone must be effectively enforced.

For other preparedness measures, I’m betting the current attitude will prevail: we’ll start worrying… only when the ash starts falling.

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