Mt. Pinatubo poses flood danger in RP

MANILA, Philippines, AP

Ten years after Mount Pinatubo rained fire and ash in a huge, deadly eruption, the northern Philippine volcano threatens to unleash mass floods as its crater fills with rain that has been accumulating ever since, scientists say.

Philippine volcano experts say they are studying the danger to more than 40,000 farmers and villagers living beneath Pinatubo, but the British-based aid agency Oxfam says the government may be underestimating the risks and urged immediate measures to prevent damage.

“It’s very clear that the people should be alerted to the danger — and immediately,” said Lan Mercado, Oxfam’s representative in the Philippines.

At the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, director Raymundo Punongbayan called major flooding a “worst-case scenario” and said it would take time to assess how much of a threat Pinatubo actually poses to the fertile area of rice farming that also is frequently struck by typhoons.

More than 200 million cubic meters (7 trillion cubic feet) of rain filled the volcano since it blew off its top in 1991, leaving a hole of 5.4 square kilometers (2.08 square miles) in its summit.

The water, rising rapidly in the newly started rainy season, has climbed to within 5.5 meters (18 feet) of the summit and could crack crater walls, endangering farms and villages in the area, according to the volcano institute.

“There seems to be the risk of catastrophic breaching,” Punongbayan said. “That’s the worst-case scenario. Or it could have a slow leak. We’re studying the risks but we have not done a campaign of telling people because we do not yet see a clear trend.”

The severity of any flooding would depend on the location of any break in the crater’s walls. The lower the breach, the greater the amount of water that would come gushing out.

Punongbayan said the water could combine with volcanic ash and mud on the volcano’s slopes to increase in volume.

Punongbayan said his institute will complete a study in coming months on the risk of flash floods and then decide whether to put certain areas on alert.

Despite the danger, farmers and villagers in the possible path of destruction have not changed their daily routines _ most could not afford to even if they wanted to.

“It’s scary because the water is indeed rising fast,” said Ronnie Tiotuico, a tour guide who regularly takes visitors on a three-hour, 500-peso (US$10) trek to the summit lake.

“But I think people trust that the government will do something if it is really dangerous.” Tiotuico said his tours will continue, but he plans to avoid weaker areas of the crater that could crack.

Many area residents have been aware of the risk of mudslides from the volcano’s slopes since the 1991 eruption and emergency evacuation plans are in place, authorities said.