Saturday, May 06, 2006

15 years on, life returns to Pinatubo

MOUNT PINATUBO -- Life is rapidly returning to this Central Luzon mountain 15 years after it blew its top in an eruption that killed more than 1,500 people and sent a cloud of ash into the atmosphere that cooled world temperatures for years.

At dawn, wild roosters crow lustily around Mount Pinatubo's summit, affirming the triumph of life over death in a region laid to waste by the world's second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Fireflies race for the safety of the sparse scrub and tall grass by the crater's edge, just before the first batch of tourists arrive from an uphill trek, breathless and gasping in awe at the scenery.

Among the group of trekkers is porter Randy Dumunot, who was 14 when the volcano buried his family's nipa hut and their three-hectare farm of rice and root crops in the village of Santa Juliana in Capas town, Tarlac province, about 30 km northeast of the volcano.

Dumunot's family rebuilt the house after the June 1991 eruption but the farm was no more, permanently covered in lahar, a fine dust of volcanic debris.

"Overnight we turned into P80-a-day landless farm hands," Dumunot, now 29, told Agence France-Presse.

An estimated 500,000 people were rendered homeless when, after more than four centuries of slumber, Pinatubo erupted so violently that more than five billion cubic meters of ash and debris were ejected from its fiery bowels 30 km into the atmosphere.

Millions of tons of sulfur dioxide shot into the stratosphere, blocked sunlight and cooled the entire Earth by up to 0.6 degrees Celsius for years afterward.

Over the next six years, the volcanic material flowed down nine river channels during the annual wet season, bringing misery to about two million residents in low-lying areas covering 4,000 sq km.

These major waterways were clogged. Floods and mudslides destroyed homes, farms, roads, bridges and dikes built to defend communities from lahar.

Lahar-free homes

Fifteen years later, property developers in the Central Luzon plain tout "certified lahar-free" homes to potential buyers.

Santa Juliana is now experiencing a rebirth as a tourist gateway. Spas and resorts are sprouting up to cater to mountain trekkers, including South Koreans, who climb the mountain daily by the dozens during the dry months.

Lugging an inflatable kayak, a coil of fat rope capable of lifting a two-ton elephant, and a bag of squashed hamburgers, Dumunot now earns an extra P1,000 a week as part of a team of locals who serve as porters and guides to well-heeled visitors drawn to this mountain of death.

"This is a big help," said the father of four children. "My brother-in-law, my cousin and my uncle are also porters."

Dumunot is hoping he can save enough money to buy a sleeping bag and a tent like the colorful, ultra-light types set up for the night along the crater rim here.

Having none, he and the other porters sleep on cardboard boxes in the space beneath the crater's lake view deck.

All-terrain jeeps

At Santa Juliana, visitors rent battered all-terrain jeeps that barrel up the broad, flat bed of the O'Donnell River for an hour toward Crow Valley, a vast wasteland of volcanic sand and spent shell casings. The valley had served as a bombing range for the 7th US Air Force, which was driven off for good from its Clark Air Base home to the south of Santa Juliana during the eruption.

From the valley, the last third of the three-hour hike is through a gently ascending mountain pass, watered by a brook that feeds into O'Donnell. Some now take the climb on horseback, and others even use their own trail bikes.

A few people stay overnight, rappelling down a 25-meter section of the crater wall wearing helmets to protect themselves from the rocks dislodged by the rope.

Eruption remote

They also bathe or ride canoes at the 2.5-km diameter caldera, a turquoise-colored soup bowl of rain water that has collected through the years to a depth of up to 248 meters.

"There won't be another eruption in this generation because based on carbon dating samples, previous ones occurred at intervals of hundreds, to thousands, of years," said Jaime Sincioco, a senior scientist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

"The mudslides are gone. The only problem left is flooding in the low-lying areas because the rivers that radiate out from the crater are heavily silted," Sincioco added.

The government opened Pinatubo to the public in the mid-1990s, launching a new form of tourism where visitors were treated to a vision of hell on earth, featuring a moonscape of canyons and deep gullies in uniform gray.

All the plants and the animals that could not run, crawl or fly fast enough were vaporized by the superheated gases from the rim.

Gradually, by the late 1990s, the vegetation, along with songbirds and fireflies, had returned, stabilizing the remnants of the loose volcanic material deposited by the eruption onto the slopes of the Zambales mountain range.

However, the deeply scarred south side of the crater wall remains shorn of plant cover, destabilized by constant landslides that boom across the crater lake like prolonged claps of thunder. This area of the 1,485-meter-high mountain remains off limits to climbers.

Rapid pace of development

Sincioco is worried at the rapid pace of development around Pinatubo, fearing visitors could blunder into their deaths through ignorance or sheer carelessness.

"We actually discourage tourists from venturing into the crater lake," he said. "The crater wall is fractured, so there is a lot of landslide activity there."

Regulators are also critical of the recently opened dirt road on the ridge above Crow Valley, which shortened the climb by about 75 minutes but which officials fear could unsettle the still fragile ecosystem.

Sincioco said the new road, built by the local government with the aid of a legislator representing the district, would also cut off the tourism revenue streams to Dapili, an impoverished village at the end of the old trail populated by hunter-gatherer tribesmen called Aetas who were almost wiped out by the eruption.

"When we drafted the (Pinatubo rehabilitation) master plan, we stressed that the road should end at Santa Juliana," Sincioco said.

"If you allow motor vehicles beyond that area, they displace the (volcanic) deposits and contribute to erosion," he warned. Agence France-Presse