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Familiarity with volcanoes breeds content

Taal, Philippines - A seaweed farmer gathers his harvest on the shores of Taal lake as the summit of the Taal Volcano is seen in the background. Taal, a picturesque volcano surrounded by a lake just outside the Philippine capital Manila, is one of the cou
A seaweed farmer gathers his harvest on the shores of Taal lake as the summit of the Taal Volcano is seen in the background (Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

When Bulusan volcano in the Philippines' eastern province of Sorsogon blew a 3km-high column of ash on 21 February in one of its periodic rumblings, evacuations went smoothly, said provincial disaster officials.

As quickly as they were forced to leave, most residents have since returned, in a rhythm of displacement to which they have grown accustomed.

For many living in the shadow of the 1,559m Bulusan and the 22 other active volcanoes in the archipelago, a high state of preparedness can spell the difference between life and death, officials said.

Bulusan, about 379km southeast of the capital Manila, has been active since 2006. Most recently in November 2010, an eruption forced thousands to evacuate their homes in farming villages on the lower slopes.

Government volcanologists said the latest eruption was steam-driven, which forced a mushroom-shaped ash cloud into the sky, turning day into night and cancelling commercial flights to a nearby airport due to zero visibility.

More than 2,000 people were evacuated from the immediate vicinity of the eruption. Another 100,000 live in the affected area, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

Jose Lopez, Sorsogon's provincial disaster risk reduction officer, said before the latest eruption several evacuation sites had already been designated, and residents were prevented from straying beyond a 4km radius danger zone.

"We're used to Bulusan's rumblings and, like other areas that are home to other volcanoes, very aware of the potential dangers we face," Lopez told IRIN.

"For generations, the people here realize that while these volcanoes are a source of blessing because of the rich soil, they can turn against anyone in an instant. That is why we always stock enough relief provisions and are in constant touch with troops, police and other rescue units," he added.

Volcanic ash typically boosts soil fertility.

"Our hazard mapping is continuing and there are those who have permanently vacated danger zones, which is the perfect risk mitigation move."

He said residents in villages on the lower slopes have also been trained to react quickly to any signs of activity, and their families and livestock can quickly be evacuated by a seven-man government rescue team permanently on standby in the town of Irosin 20km away.

Regional army spokesman Harold Cabunoc said troops stationed in the area were prepared to roll out over 30 trucks in case of further eruptions. Recent evacuations were not as numerous as those in previous years, he noted.

Ash reaction

The NDRRMC warned that although Bulusan may have temporarily quietened down, the public should remain vigilant, especially those living along valleys and rivers where rains may trigger lahar flows.

Lahar floods carry sand from river banks, volcanic ash and rocks at an accelerated rate down a mountain slope into rivers and can prove fatal.

Ash fall earlier in the week led to the asthmatic death of a two-year-old boy in Sorsogon Province, triggering the deployment of local medical teams to check for illnesses associated with volcanic fine particles that can cause nose, throat, eye or skin irritations, and with prolonged exposure, lung diseases.

Acid-laden ash can also contaminate drinking water.

The Philippines is located in the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire of volcanic activity. Among its most famous volcanoes is Mount Pinatubo, whose eruption in 1991 was considered among the world's most powerful in the past century. The volcano, 70km north of Manila, killed more than 1,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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