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Returning home to Taal

With the Philippine Institute on Volcanology and Seismology lowering the alert level of Taal Volcano to level 3 and the exclusion zone reduced from a radius of 14 km to 7 km, nearly a million evacuees have started to return to their homes and farms, two weeks after they fled their towns when the country’s second most active volcano suddenly erupted.

However, the towns of Agoncillo and Laurel are still off-limits based on volcanologists’ report that Taal’s eruption is still looming, though they cannot predict when this will happen. Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas told a news briefing that the decision to allow residents to return home has been given to mayors. However, he has ordered evacuation centers in Batangas to remain open as the areas ravaged by Taal’s eruption still need rehabilitation before residents could be allowed to return.

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Meanwhile, Sen. Ralph Recto has proposed the creation of a Taal Commission to oversee the recovery and rehabilitation of affected areas. The question is: Should people move back into their towns destroyed by the Taal Volcano eruption, with the threat of other eruptions in the future? Or should new and safer areas be developed for resettlement?

Our own experience and from other parts of the world show that people do return to their towns destroyed by volcanoes. The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are underneath modern cities in Italy like Naples, because over the centuries people forgot about the towns buried by Mount Vesuvius.

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In Chaiten, Chile, the government has abandoned its earlier plan to rebuild the town in an entirely new location, further from the volcano that erupted in 2008, and is now rebuilding the town exactly where it stood before. Homes in Kilauea in Hawaii were built on lava flows that erupted just 50 years ago. Why do people move back?

Part of the problem is the wide divide between human perception of time and geologic time. For humans, 50 years can be a lifetime, but for a volcano that might be active for hundreds of thousands of years, 50 years is nothing. Can we think to prepare for events that might occur 100 years down the road when today things are quiet?

Another aspect of the problem is that people are linked to a place. Very rarely do you see people displaced by a disaster who do not try to return after their perception of the hazard has passed. We see this behavior in places visited by other calamities such as earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, and floods, without much thought to how likely a recurrence of that disaster might be.

Even in slower disasters like sea-level rise and liquefaction, we choose to protect what exists rather than move to an entirely new location; humans simply become attached to where they live. Another part is money. The people who want their towns rebuilt on the same place destroyed by previous disasters are those who have invested the most in the town—business owners, landowners, etc. Moving the community would be a massive loss to them. The threat of more volcanic activity is outweighed by the specter of economic loss, at least in the short-term.

So, are Batangas officials doing a disservice to Batangueños by allowing them to return and rebuild in the same place? Are they putting their constituents directly in harm’s way?

Taal is still an active volcano, and many towns lie directly in the path of debris that would come from future eruptions. Or maybe Taal will not erupt for another few hundred years. Is it worth it to abandon the affected towns permanently if it would take several generations before the next eruption?

Where do we draw the line when it comes to risk? We live in a geologically active country, so finding places devoid of hazards is nearly impossible.

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Whether we rebuild on the same affected places or build new settlements in new areas, these places will need to weather what Taal might throw at them. Hopefully, the recovery and rehabilitation plan for the affected Taal communities will include such considerations.

Nathaniel von Einsiedel ([email protected]) is the president of the Alliance for Safe, Sustainable & Resilient Environments.

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TAGS: Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas, Philippine Institute on Volcanology and Seismology, Taal Volcano
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