Philippines: Acting in anticipation of lahar amidst COVID-19
After a long year tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the province of Albay in the Philippines was faced with several more unexpected challenges toward the end of 2020. Four consecutive typhoons left many communities damaged, and mudflow from the Mayon Volcano threatened surrounding municipalities causing five casualties. As a result, there is now a clear demand for a multi-hazard approach when planning for hazards in the province.
In 2018, CARE, Christian Aid, and Humanity and Inclusion piloted a project around anticipatory action for lahar risks in three municipalities in Albay: Daraga, Camalig and Sto. Domingo called Andam Lahar (Prepare for Lahar). The project focused on preparing communities for the threat of volcanic mudflow through the use of hazard maps and leveraging the previous volcanic hazard experiences of the community.
A series of workshops and training for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management officers was conducted to gather and validate existing knowledge on lahar risks, and to craft local contingency plans specifically for lahar. A simulation drill involving community members and vulnerable populations, such as older people and people with disabilities, also took place to test and refine the evacuation and recovery plans made by their local leaders.
Acting on lahar risks within the province
In November 2020, the impact of four consecutive typhoons (Molave, Goni, Atsani, Vamco) caused volcanic mud from the Mayon Volcano to flow down to its surrounding areas. The amount of rainfall for Super Typhoon Goni, the third typhoon to hit Albay province in three weeks, was 16 inches or 400 millimeters. With the two previous typhoons also bringing significant amounts of rainfall, it was very much expected for lahar to be pushed down from the slopes of the volcano.
Cedric Daep, the head of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO), shared their experience during this time.
“We were constantly monitoring all areas surrounding the Mayon Volcano. Local Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) officers were reporting to us the status of their areas almost every hour. Even before the typhoon hit, preemptive evacuations were already made to ensure the safety of high-risk areas. We are also of course in close contact with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to provide real-time information about the other risks present from the volcano.”
Daep and his team in APSEMO also took part in Start Network’s Anticipatory Action for Lahar Risk in 2019.
“We observed that evacuation processes this time were quicker and more efficient compared to before. People in vulnerable areas willingly evacuated from their homes now that they became aware of the risks of lahar.”
More than a year after the project, significant changes in the behaviour of people toward lahar can be seen during times of crisis.
“There were no casualties in the areas we worked with in Daraga, Camalig, and Sto. Domingo, evidence that what we did was effective and useful beyond doubt. Disaster risk officers reported that they were able to implement the contingency plans we've developed through workshops and simulation activities. However, new channels opened and lahar flowed in unexpected areas where our project was not able to cover, proving the need for our initiative to be replicated in all areas within the danger zone of Mayon Volcano.” said Daep.
What was different in this scenario, however, was the threat of an unseen opponent—COVID-19.
Operating against the backdrop of a pandemic
Lockdowns in the Philippines began in the latter half of March 2020, forcing shops to close, transportation services to be suspended, and businesses to stop their operations. According to the International Labor Organization, almost a quarter of the entire working population of the Philippines will likely be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which amounts to more than 10 million families suffering from income loss and disrupted livelihoods. The informal labor sectors, including public transportation, construction, retail, and manufacturing were some of the hardest hit industries, distressing more than 7 million people.
The lack of economic opportunities during the first three months of the pandemic, pushed the national and local governments in the Philippines to reallocate their budget and resources for the year to provide food rations and cash to those most in need and to prevent people from going out. The health sector was also equipped with personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies to lessen the spread of the virus. Donations from private institutions also poured in to support local governments to better serve their constituents.
However, as the initial three-month lockdown extended further toward the end of 2020, local governments expressed that their resources are slowly depleting.
Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Officer of Daraga, Alex Comia, echoed this sentiment.
“We have already spent more than half of our fiscal budget for the first two quarters of 2020 because of the pandemic. We had several cash assistance and food programs, this is on top of making sure we have enough manpower to implement quarantine guidelines and work with the local health department to keep our community safe. This pandemic was unexpected, but of course we have to adapt and act towards it.”
The province of Albay was able to control the spread of the pandemic early on in their area, with efficient planning and preventive measures. However, what they couldn’t control were the hazards brewing from the primary risk they have in their area—the Mayon Volcano.
Rosabel Banzuela, Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Officer of Sto. Domingo shares how they responded under the circumstances.
“Evacuation protocols were still the same. What we practiced during the evacuation drill before, was also what we implemented during the actual evacuation process when the typhoons hit. They of course had to wear face masks and face shields while maintaining their distance. Our vehicles also had to lessen their capacity but good thing there were a lot of private individuals who offered theirs in order to hasten the process.”
Rosabel emphasized how they were able to streamline the evacuation process by prioritizing the most vulnerable—a valuable lesson they were able to take away from the project.
“Persons with disability and older people were the first ones to be evacuated, people with special needs such as pregnant women followed right after.”
However, the pandemic has unfortunately affected their plans of cascading the lahar anticipatory action trainings across other areas in Sto. Domingo.
“We were supposed to do several training and evacuation drills for other barangays (villages) for lahar preparedness, as the leaders themselves requested they have one. When the pandemic hit, we had to re-align our priorities and resources.”
The municipality of Camalig, on the other hand, was able to disseminate their lahar preparedness plan, even before the pandemic hit. Dr. Rommel (Mel) Negrete, Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Officer said:
“Right after the project ended in Camalig, we were able to institutionalize the creation of lahar contingency plans, seeing the need for community based disaster risk reduction plans. Our DRR office immediately went to work and crafted training sessions which will help other barangays craft their own contingency plan for lahar. With the help of APSEMO and PHIVOLCS, we also created our own lahar hazard maps which has proven useful in developing contingency plans. We were also able to identify two high-risk areas that we suggested for permanent relocation based on the hazard maps.”
Mel also pointed out that they were able to allocate a specific budget for lahar training this 2021. This was after their efforts in the latter parts of 2019 and early parts of 2020 when they carried out lahar information caravans across barangays (villages). Mel’s team not only made use of the anticipatory action information materials provided, but also crafted their own audio-visual materials about lahar.
“The key in preparing for lahar, in our perspective, is governance. We were able to lobby our municipal mayor to prioritize actions addressing lahar risks, as this is the most common occurrence we have during rainy seasons. PHIVOLCS may be able to predict the eruption of the volcano but we cannot say the same with lahar. It may be sunny here at the foot of the volcano, but it is raining in the upper slopes and may push down the deposit, we can never know, so we must be prepared. We also regularly conduct aerial surveys with the use of drones to monitor different locations where lahar may be present.”
If there was one good thing that lahar brought to communities in Albay, it was alternative sources of livelihood. Residents now use lahar to build hollow blocks, houses, and infrastructures while some local businesses export lahar to nearby provinces creating more jobs for those who have been severely affected by the pandemic.
“Lahar is good for construction and is in demand in different places in the Philippines. Businesses were able to make use of lahar in a positive way, boosting our local economy, despite the negative effects it has brought to our province last year,” said Alex Comia.
All three municipalities expressed their gratitude to the anticipatory action project. It was the kickstart they needed to keep the talk about lahar and other volcanic risks going. Now they can better augment their disaster risk reduction plans by also taking into consideration future health crises that may arise.