PHILIPPINES: Mayon quietens, but threat remains

News and Press Release
Originally published
MANILA, 6 January 2010 (IRIN) - Thousands of evacuees from the area around Mayon volcano in the Philippines have returned home as the mountain gradually calmed down three weeks after it began spewing lava and ash.

As of 6 January, only 510 families or 2,332 people from three villages remain in evacuation centres out of more than 50,000 who had fled their homes and farms from a danger zone of an 8km radius around Mayon, in Albay Province, southeast of Manila, officials told IRIN.

On 2 January, the green light to return was given by the provincial government after the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology lowered the alert level to three out of a five-step system.

This means Mayon's activity was gradually decreasing, and there is less probability of an explosive eruption. Immediately after the announcement, the evacuees began returning home.

"While most have been allowed to return home, however, not everything has gone back to normal. These people still need help from the local government because their livelihoods were disrupted for weeks because their farms were untended and vegetables that were to be harvested were destroyed by ash fall," Cedric Daep, chief of Albay's emergency disaster response office, said.

The Albay provincial government, with the help of international NGOs and humanitarian agencies, had launched "early recovery" programmes, including "food for work and cash for work" projects, he said.

The government was also working on a long-term plan to relocate more people from the danger zone to areas where there would no longer be any need to evacuate every time Mayon wakes up, he added.

"This, however, will require a lot of political will," he said, noting that many families around Mayon had lived there for decades to take advantage of its fertile slopes.

"Relocation plans are continually being drawn up even now. When Mayon last exploded in 2006, we permanently relocated around 6,000 people," Daep said.

"The most likely priority now for permanent relocation is the more than 2,000 still in evacuation sites."

Financial strains

Albay Governor Joey Salceda said the evacuations had put a strain on local finances, and moving those in harm's way to safer areas permanently might prevent a bigger calamity in future.

"We also want to preserve their dignity because the conditions in the evacuation centres are different," he said, noting that the 29 public schools that were converted into temporary shelters in the past three weeks offered no privacy and many, including children and women, had to sleep on floors in overcrowded classrooms.

"A lot has been provided for these people, but we need to build them homes. That is what we aim to do in the longer term, to relocate them all," he said, although he did not say where his government would get the resources to do so.

Continuing threat

Meanwhile, the National Disaster Coordinating Council warned the public on 5 January that the threat is not over. The lowering of the alert level, it said, should not be misinterpreted as "that the unrest of the volcano has ceased. If there is a resurgence in the volcano's activity and the potential for explosive eruption is perceived to be forthcoming, the alert level may be raised back to four, but if there is a noticeable downward trend in the monitored parameters, then the alert will be further lowered."

Seismic monitors have recorded faint rumblings over the past few days, although these were mostly associated with rock falls and not due to rising magma levels.

There may still be sudden bursts of ash and steam due to pockets of gas, although these are not expected to affect populated areas, it said.

"People residing close to these danger areas are advised to observe precautions associated with post-eruption activity such as rock falls, pyroclastic flows and ash fallout which can occur any time due to instabilities of lava deposited on steep slopes," it said.

It warned residents of the foothills of Mayon to monitor river channels and gullies on the southeastern slope of the mountain, especially during heavy or prolonged rainfall.

Mayon last erupted in August 2006, although no one was directly killed. However, a strong typhoon in December that year dislodged volcanic debris that had collected on its slopes, triggering a deadly avalanche that buried entire villages and killed more than 1,000 people.

The 2,460m Mayon has erupted 48 times in recorded history. In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed when lava flows buried the town of Cagsawa.

Given its near perfect cone, Mayon has become a tourist attraction, providing additional resources to towns around it, but also misery whenever it acts up.