Between a rock and a hard place
INTROSPECTIVE - Tony F. Katigbak (The Philippine Star) - January 28, 2020 - 12:00am

The good news that Phivolcs has downgraded the alert level around Taal Volcano is certainly welcome, however, just because the Alert Level has been set to 3 instead of 4 shouldn’t give people the false security blanket that the threat is completely over. For their safety, those in the immediate danger zone shouldn’t think that this means they have a free pass to go back and go to business as usual.

I feel for the evacuees. They are doing their best to keep it together and I can understand how some of them would be aching to go home. Back when Taal was spewing out ash it was easy for them to decide to leave. They felt their lives were in immediate danger. However, as days have passed and the volcano appears to have “calmed down,” they are getting more and more impatient to return to their homes.

Many of them have even offered to sign waivers promising not to hold anyone liable should they return to their homes and the worst were to happen. The fact that it has come to this shows what an impossible situation this is all around. Many Filipinos have shown their love by sending a huge outpouring of donations and while these have undoubtedly helped alleviate the suffering, there is no way this is a sustainable way of moving forward.

Volcanologists have said for decades that the area around Taal is not safe and should not have been turned into a community and tourist spot to begin with. With the volcano showing much activity over the years (and even rewriting the map of Batangas) it has proven that it is still a very active volcano and could blow at any time.

Despite all of these warnings though, people decided to settle in the 14-km danger zone surrounding Taal. They’ve made lives there, livelihoods, and have raised their families there. Tourists have flocked to the area and for years it was doing fine. It was just this year that the volcano decided to remind residents, and all of us, that it was still there and that it still posed a very real, very dangerous threat.

While we were lucky enough to evacuate this time around, we won’t always be that lucky, especially if people start heading back now. What if the volcano explodes? The death toll would be catastrophic. But, on the other hand, what if it doesn’t erupt? This is how evacuees are thinking as they struggle to make it by day-by-day without their homes and their livelihoods. There are two very understandable sides to this equation.

Reportedly the government is looking into the permanent relocation of communities in the 14-km danger zone. While this is a great initiative, it will require a lot of time, considerable funding, and intensive planning. It’s not just about finding them a place to stay but looking into livelihood programs, schooling, infrastructure, and so much more. Considering too that most of the infrastructure, though covered in ash, remains intact it would be very difficult to convince these people to leave the homes they know for good.

I honestly don’t know what the best way forward is. While these people want to go home and try to pick up the pieces, is this the best way to think long-term? At the same time, we can’t blame them for wanting to move on with their lives and their work.

Perhaps agreements can be made with evacuees in the area on quick action plan implementation in the case of future emergencies. Small changes in infrastructure should be something to consider as well making the areas safer from ashfall and the like. All of these would mean nothing though if the volcano suddenly erupted. There wouldn’t be enough time to save everyone and whole villages would be lost.

Something has to give soon though because the longer these evacuees are without the means to earn for themselves and crammed together in evacuation centers they are prime targets for infectious diseases and other even more insidious things like potential human trafficking or even just unscrupulous types trying to take advantage of their desperate situation.

The silver lining of this situation is that it has taught us the importance of being readily prepared for when the volcano shows signs of activity. It has also taught us that although our disaster preparedness has improved in terms of immediate action, we are still not prepared when it comes to long-term displacement of evacuees.

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