Government News Analysis Society

Beauty and the Beast

Mayon Volcano

The iconic Mayon Volcano which sits on the eastern side of Albay province in the Philippines’ Bicol Region, and 16 kilometres from the provincial capital, Legazpi City, is in a state of advanced agitation as the warning of a full-blown eruption intensifies. Now at Level 4, one stage below the maximum alert, Mayon – a natural beauty and a magnificent spectacle of nature’s awe – could be getting ready to unleash the beast. And possibly very soon.

She started to announce that on Monday and again yesterday when she cleared her throat and shot a spume of gas and steam and ash three miles up into the atmosphere, claiming the skies and turning day into night. And then she lit that night.

From her mouth she spat fountains of lava and glowing debris 2,000 feet high; triggered dozens of rock falls; sent out pyroclastic blasts of superheated gas and fiery rock – reaching as far as three miles – as white- and red-hot lava flows made their way down her flanks and ash rained down on Iriga City 35 miles away in the next-door province of Camarines Sur.

Legazpi Airport, the main airport serving the Bicol Region has been closed to all flights; the earlier total of 30,000 evacuees from the immediate area of Mayon has now jumped to 56,000 and looks set to soon reach 74,000; the danger zone – a no-man’s land circling this classic cone – has been pushed out to a radius of 5 miles. At schools across Albay, classes have been suspended and residents are being advised to wear face masks and remain indoors.

Meanwhile, as army and police personnel continue to carry out a forced evacuation and prevent people from returning to the area – as a deterrent, authorities are considering cutting off water and electricity supplies – the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has made available PHP19.4 million worth of assistance; nearly quadrupling the PHP5 million released by the department just three days ago. The total amount of relief expenditure so far stands at PHP26 million.

Elsewhere, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has brought in heavy earth-moving equipment in readiness to clear roads. DPWH service vehicles are also being used to help with the evacuation of residents.

This is a massive logistical operation. Presently, around 7,455 families – 28,846 people – are being housed in 29 evacuation centres and 66 emergency shelters set up by local government units in nine close-by Albay towns and cities including Camalig, Guinobatan, Daraga, Ligao, Malilipot, Sto. Domingo, and Tabaco. DSWD had distributed tens of thousands of food packs, water and medicines; and more than 30,000 ash-protection masks have been handed out and more are on the way.

Money and resources won’t be in short supply to deal with the human fallout should Mayon blow completely. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reports that it has PHP7 billion set aside to handle all that. It also has enough supplies in stock to feed and care for all those affected for a period of three months.

That’s now the sort of time frame which authorities are contemplating – indeed a blow-out and its aftermath could last for four months. And if that’s the case the region’s public health services as well the law-and-order situation and livelihoods from its agricultural sector will be put under tremendous strain. Vegetable farms which throng the area will vanish beneath a deep blanket of fallen rock, mudflows and ash. Many of these crops which can no longer be tended or harvested will already have been lost.

The province’s schools system will also come under sustained pressure; and plans are already being drawn up to hold temporary classes in dozens of schools which are now being used as evacuation centres. Presently around 10,000 students have been affected – the scale of disruption is virtually unfathomable.

What the final bill from such an event would be, however, is hard to even approximate – as a very rough guide though, Mount Pinatubo in Central Luzon, which erupted on 15 June 1991 and gushed 10 billion tons of magma, left behind an invoice of more than PHP12 billion for infrastructure, property and crops damage.

No question that Mayon, the most perfectly symmetrical conical volcano on Earth, is beautiful – especially when her contours are hi-glowed by fire – but she’s also deadly. And the warning from the agencies involved in monitoring Mayon and protecting all from her mounting fury is, ‘Stay well away’.

This latest series of activity – building from the rumblings which started on 13 January to the 18 tremors and two “explosion-type earthquakes” which have occurred since – has seen the warnings move from “Increasing Unrest” to “Increasing Tendency Towards Eruption” to where it is right now, “Hazardous Eruption Imminent”. If it keeps going in that direction, the next warning – the Level 5 alert – will be “Hazardous Eruption”. By then, Mayon will have blown.

This is an ancient structure; standing 8,077 feet tall, the rock was formed some 20 million years ago. It also contains tremendous power, having the capacity to release several megatons of thermal energy, hundreds of times more powerful than the devastating atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 August 1945.

Again, the environmental damage that a full-blown Mayon eruption could cause is inestimable – but to give some sort of context, Pinatubo jettisoned 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, cutting sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface by around 10% and dropping global temperatures by 0.5°C for a period of almost three years.

The first recorded eruption of Mayon was in 1616 – since then she’s exploded from dormancy into life 58 times; four times in the last 10 years. The deadliest explosion occurred in 1814 when Mayon extinguished 1,200 lives.

To anchor those stats to a global/historical setting Mount Versuvius in Italy – one of the world’s most lethal volcanoes – has erupted more than 50 times. Its most famous eruption, in AD79, destroyed the town of Pompeii – and with it, 2,000 lives.

The good news for the Philippines is that Mayon is situated in a rural landscape where population density is relative small. The dormant Vesuvius looks out over the city of Naples – around 600,000 people live on her slopes and in the ‘Red Zone’ around her skirts.

Mayon’s domain, Bicol, is a region where serene landscapes live cheek by jowl with the earth’s threatening fury. Its economy is anchored to agriculture – rice, coconut, abaca and coffee are mainstays of the rural output. Farming is what sustains it.

Consequently, evacuation areas for valuable farm animals – water buffaloes, cows, pigs and poultry – have been set up to save as much livestock as possible. Curfews now imposed on the land around Mayon mean that farmers can’t get back in to feed and care for their animals.

The Philippines sits on the Ring of Fire – a 40,000-kilometre horseshoe which is home to more than three quarters of the world’s active volcanoes. In the last 11,700 years, 22 of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions have taken place there. For its part, the Philippines has more than 100 seismic faults spanning the island regions of Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south, as well as 22 active and 27 potentially active volcanoes.

And Bicol is the archipelago’s most potentially active volcanic region with large stratovolcanoes stretching from Mounts Iriga, Isarog and Malinao in Camarines Sur to Bulusan Volcano and volcanic outcrops in the Pocdol Mountains of Sorsogon.

As an icon, however, Mount Mayon stands head and shoulders above all these – the Philippines’ most active volcano, she’s also its greatest natural wonder. But she’s far more than just a landmark; a tourist magnet, a postcard. Mayon – an odd fusion of pastoral calm and latent rage – captures the Filipino spirit. She’s proud and resolute, yet can be unpredictable and edgy. At the same time, she’s both serene and passionate – she portrays her beauty yet commands respect. She is uniquely Filipino – and unconditionally loved by the people.

Mayon is featured on the reverse side of the PHP100 banknote – in the past, she’s graced a number of centavo and peso coins. She’s appeared as the backdrop in countless movies and TV soaps. She’s a national treasure – and she’s steeped in myth.

According to a timeless legend, this volcanic mount is the tomb of a beautiful young woman, Dragang Magayon, and a brave youth, Panganoron, with whom she’d fallen in love. They were buried there after being killed during a battle caused by a jealous suitor who wanted the young woman as his bride. The eruptions of Mayon, so goes the myth, are expressions of the power of their eternal love. Right now then, they’re expressing their feelings for each other for all to hear.

No people love a love story more than the Filipinos – especially one as tragic as that of Magayon and Panganoron. But they’re also a philosophical people. The land around Mayon is fertile land – that’s Mayon’s gift. And so the farmers and the rural communities that work and live around Mayon’s slopes know that what Mayon has given, Mayon can take away.

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