Taal’s tantrums: Preemptive measures imperative

Due to the resurgence of “anomalously high sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission” from Taal Volcano, Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has imposed Alert Level 3 to warn against the dangers posed by a “high level of volcanic unrest.”  Just a notch lower than Alert Level 4 that was raised in January 2020, this has prompted the evacuation of residents from nine Batangas towns, namely: Agoncillo,  Laurel, Taal, Lemery, Balete, Cuenca, Mataasnakahoy , San Nicolas, and Talisay, and Tanauan City.

Governor Hermilando Mandanas has activated the provincial disaster relief and risk reduction management council and its units in the various LGUs to ensure a prompt and orderly evacuation process --- even as he laments that under a new law signed by President Duterte in 2018, the areas affected by Taal Volcano’s hazards have been placed under the supervision of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). He is referring to Republic Act Republic Act 11038 or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Area System (ENIPAS) Act. According to Governor Mandanas, he does not have the authority to order evacuations.

Field reports indicate that at least 22 evacuation centers have been set up, providing shelter to nearly 4,000 displaced residents. A total of 39 people died as a result of Taal’s eruption last year despite the fact that only one death was directly caused by the January 12, 2020 eruption. The casualties perished “because they refused to follow the evacuation order or decided to return to their homes, or died in the evacuation centers of heart attacks caused by anxiety.”

Taal Volcano’s strong eruption last year also forced the closure of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the country’s main gateway and the diversion of flights to Mactan Cebu International Airport.

Barely had the affected communities returned to their homes, when a second disaster struck: the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.  Hence, thousands of families in Batangas and Cavite were hit by a double whammy of economic dislocation and illnesses.  Damage to agricultural crops and fisheries was extensive, estimated at P3.1 billion and P1.6 billion, respectively.  The shutdown of the local tourist and travel trade has greatly affected the livelihood and income of thousands living in the permanent danger zone in the periphery of Taal Volcano.

Amid the ongoing preemptive evacuation, the Health Secretary himself has initiated vaccination of those that are now housed at the evacuation centers.  Some Metro Manila mayors also donated a portion of their vaccine supplies so that more evacuees could be inoculated.

Learning from past lessons, it is hoped that the current response will bring about a higher level of comfort and assurance to the families directly affected by Taal Volcano’s latest volatility.  Hopefully, turf issues such as those flagged by the Batangas governor would not impede relief efforts, nor trigger other adverse events that could magnify the consequences of Taal’s tantrums on nearly half a million people living within its 14-kilometer permanent danger zone.