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Lessons from Taal; some policy recommendations

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THINKING PINOY

By RJ NIETO

nieto

RJ Nieto

The Taal Volcano eruption will not be the last calamity to hit this country. While I commend our authorities for minimizing the number of casualties after Taal erupted, I can’t deny the fact that there’s still much to be fixed in as far as disaster preparedness. Hence, here are some policy recommendations so we can be better prepared in the future.

First, we need better communications.

Phivolcs and the rest of the government did well in evacuating those in Taal’s immediate vicinity, which strongly suggests excellent communication between local residents and authorities. Unfortunately, it’s not the case for the rest of Luzon.

Phivolcs did exceptionally well in monitoring Taal’s activity and has provided ample warning to the public. Frontline government agencies and even most mainstream news sites, however, failed to translate Phivolcs jargon into what the public can readily understand.

Would it hurt if we describe the eruption with the word “steam-blast” instead of “phreatic,” or use the word “volcanic explosions” instead of “base surges”? I don’t think so.

Worse, some frontline government communications agencies spam pages with too much information that isn’t immediately useful for the scared Juan, at the expense of burying more important ones. A government page, for example, shared every single aftershock that Phivolcs announced, even if many are of magnitude two and less.

We should provide the public only immediately actionable intelligence or information that they know how to address. For example, we can provide answers to questions like, “Will Taal’s condition worsen or, if uncertain, what’s the probability that it will?” or “Is it a good idea for those situated immediate outside the radius for mandatory evacuation to leave their homes too, and if so, where should they go?” We do not want the public to worry less (or more) than they should because it will only make the situation worse.

Second, we need more redundant infrastructure.

Let us not put all our eggs in one basket, meaning let’s get some stuff out of Metro Manila.

The Taal eruption paralyzed much of the infrastructure in south Metro Manila, such as the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. For several hours, we had no idea if the airport would open again or what. I think this is one of the best reasons to push through with the much-delayed New Manila International Airport in Bulacan, so at least one airport can service the capital if the other one closes.

Yes, Clark has an airport, but its sheer distance makes logistics difficult vis-à-vis Manila’s aviation needs, should NAIA be paralyzed for an extended period. Moreover, Clark is near Pinatubo, so what will Clark do if Pinatubo strikes again? There has to be another airport.

Recall what happened to Tacloban when Yolanda destroyed its lone runway, significantly hampering rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Like Tacloban, we have only one runway in NAIA. Do we want another Tacloban to happen to our nation’s capital?

We should also accelerate the development of New Clark City and other economic centers to decentralize economic activity. If something cataclysmic happens to Metro Manila, that’s over a third of our country’s GDP going up in smoke. We need to have multiple economic centers so that if one city falls, the remainder can prop it up.

Third, we need more disaster-related education.

We are all familiar with earthquake drills, and Yolanda has pretty much forced the public to learn as much as it can about typhoons. The people, however, are not as informed about volcanic eruptions, even if we have over a dozen active volcanoes. For example, Taal was on Alert Level 1 since 2019, but many in Luzon had no idea.

Local weather reports should include information about active volcanoes whose eruptions may affect the locality. For example, newscasts in Metro Manila should also talk about Taal, Mt. Pinatubo, and Mt. Banahaw, while broadcasts in Bicol should talk about Mt. Bulusan.

We can also modify public school curricula to include more relevant and up-to-date lessons on geology, meteorology, crisis response, and the like. Let’s make science classes more connected to the Philippine context.

Moreover, we all know that N95 masks were in short supply right after the news about the Taal eruption broke. Something as basic as these should be in every Filipino’s hands even before something like Taal happened. I think most of us already have an earthquake survival kit, so it’s just a matter of adding a few items relevant to volcanic eruptions.

And the key to turning this into reality is more education. If we need to remind the public about this every day, then so be it.

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