Learning to live with volcanoes | Inquirer Opinion
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Learning to live with volcanoes

Everything you need to learn about life, you can learn from people who live with volcanoes.

Some people merely live near them but not with them — this group is most vulnerable to danger because they don’t see it. Others choose to not risk at all and stay far away from any danger, perhaps losing out on experiencing the world as it is.

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The news of Taal Volcano being put on alert level 3 (indicating a “high level of volcanic unrest,” according to the Phivolcs website) literally hit close to home. Batangas has been our second home, even more so after my parents’ retirement. Last Friday, Marikaban Island disappeared from view, enveloped by a mysterious haze. Boats would seemingly appear out of nowhere, going in and out of the foggy veil. Fearing that this was the reported sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, we closed all the windows and put on our masks. My 93-year-old grandfather, when told of the alert level, calmly put on his mask and resumed watching his basketball game.

Our town is used to the tantrums of nature. We do live at a comfortable distance from Taal compared to the neighboring towns of Laurel, Agoncillo, San Nicolas, and Lemery, whose residents had to undergo evacuation. As of this writing, more than 3,000 people have sought shelter in evacuation centers.

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This situation reminded me of one of the most valuable lessons in disaster mental health research: Learn from the people who are living it. The most sustainable solutions in disaster preparedness and management typically come from the communities themselves; top-down approaches almost never work in the long run. In local studies looking at evacuation behavior (and why some people hesitate or decide to not leave at all), we learned that we have to first understand what people value. Some people stay put because they cannot imagine leaving their sources of livelihood. They ask: What is the point of surviving if they cannot provide for their families? Others remain because of the memories their houses and communities hold. The rest feel the need to protect what they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Of course, we simply can’t just let them stay, especially when danger is imminent. At the same time, we need to listen to what they want to protect—and to protect it with them. The worst mistake is to assume that they’re simply ignorant of the danger. In fact, no one knows the danger of the sea more than fishermen. No one knows more about the destructive power of a volcano than those who live at its foot. When you listen to them, you realize that they have amassed organic wisdom about nature cultivated from generations of having lived with it, and that knowledge may be more effective than Western approaches to disaster preparedness.

What can we learn from communities who’ve survived despite the dangers? To live with nature is to respect nature, both its bounty and its destructiveness. Not listening to nature has deadly costs; you quickly learn to read the signs. If you want to gain from the good days, you have to be willing to weather the bad days. There is no insisting—or pretending—that life is filled only with good days. You never sail against the wind—you zigzag your way around it. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not to face it head-on, but to attack it from different angles.

Living within sight of an active volcano means never forgetting you’re living with a volcano. This doesn’t mean life stops just because danger exists. There are still children to take care of, relationships to nurture, and livelihoods to be sustained. There must be space for some music (karaoke, if possible) and humor even in the most dire of situations. Don’t forget laughter. There must be laughter for us to find this dangerous life worth living.

And even the wisest and most prepared need help — and know how to accept it. To be brave and strong is to acknowledge your vulnerability and recognize other people’s strengths. There is no bravery without fear. Bravery without fear is deadly foolishness.

Life goes on, danger or no danger. Just don’t ever forget what you’re living with.

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Inquirer calls for support for the victims of Taal volcano eruption
Responding to appeals for help, the Inquirer is extending its relief to the families affected by the recent eruption of Taal volcano.
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TAGS: Anna Cristina Tuazon, Safe Safe, Taal Volcano, volcanoes
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