Living in the Philippines is living dangerously.
For one, the Philippines is smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s typhoon superhighways. An average of six to nine typhoons make landfall in the Philippines every year. As the globe gets warmer, more of these storms will get stronger than ever before.
As if this is not hazardous enough, the Philippines also sits right along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where most of the world’s earthquakes happen and where most volcanoes can be found.
Last week, the steam-blast eruption of Taal Volcano violently reminded us of this fact. This makes it a good time to review the hazards of living in the Ring of Fire.
Before we dive into science, it helps to review the language.
In the field of disaster risk reduction and management, the following words are very important: disaster, disaster risk, hazard, exposure, and vulnerability.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council defines a disaster as a “serious disruption in the function of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impact.”
Furthermore, a disaster must “exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.”
In other words, a disaster is an event in which the functioning of a community is thrown into disarray, and the only way to get things going again is through outside help.
Disaster risk, meanwhile, is related to the likelihood that a disaster will happen.
As its name suggests, the goal of DRRM is to reduce and manage the risk of disaster.
Disaster risk is a result of at least three factors: hazard, exposure, and vulnerability.
A hazard is an event that is potentially harmful to people, animals, and property. Meanwhile, exposure is related to how a hazard can affect people. Finally, vulnerability relates to pre-existing conditions that can affect someone’s ability to take action when a hazard occurs.
Let us apply these terms to volcanoes.
A volcanic eruption, even a powerful one, does not necessarily lead to a disaster. In fact, the goal of DRRM is to prevent disasters from happening even after a powerful eruption or a strong earthquake.
Fortunately, despite the declaration of a State of Calamity in Batangas in the wake of Taal’s steam-driven eruption, one can argue that a disaster was averted. While the daily life of people in the surrounding towns and cities was disrupted, local government units were able to respond to it.
That said, a volcanic eruption still poses all sorts of hazards that we should be aware of. In the case of Taal’s Phreatic or steam-driven eruption last week, the hazards include the inhaling of volcanic ash and the risk of accidents due to ashfall.
A more powerful eruption brings more hazards. For example, officials from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology warned that a bigger eruption can come with a volcanic earthquake, tsunami, and pyroclastic flows (a strong current of volcanic material).
The impact of the hazards presented by each volcano is unique. It can also depend on the circumstance. For example, Taal’s eruption can potentially create a volcanic tsunami because it is right in the middle of a lake. Meanwhile, Mt. Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption resulted in a major lahar hazard because of heavy rains that followed the eruption.
The Philippines is home to more than 20 active volcanoes. The two most active are Mt. Mayon and Taal Volcano, both of which are near areas where millions of people live. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we as a society invest in Phivolcs, NDRRMC, and other institutions that can help us respond to hazards.
As with health, it is also true with disasters that prevention is better than cure. As mentioned, one way a disaster can be averted in the event of a volcanic eruption is to minimize people’s exposure. One way this can be done is by evacuating them on time.
Another way is by looking at the vulnerability of different groups. For example, low-income communities might have greater hesitation at evacuating even when given the orders. This can be because they have fewer means of evacuating. This is also because they probably have less capability to recover from setbacks.
That is not to mention earthquakes, the other half of the dangers presented by living in the Ring of Fire.
What I hope to show here is that minimizing the risk of a disaster is not the responsibility of individual people. Instead, it is the task of our entire society to learn about the potential hazards of living in our part of the world. Furthermore, we should look at how we can protect especially vulnerable members of our society.
Life in the Ring of Fire requires us to help each other.