KASAMA Vol. 15 No. 3 / July-August-September 2001 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

The eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 left a caldera that for the past decade has accumulated about 210 million cubic meters of water forming a 2.5 kilometer-wide lake at the summit of the mountain. In July this year a geology research team commissioned by Oxfam Great Britain visited the site of the Maraunot notch, a weak point on the crater's rim. The geologists warned that the pressure of the water could cause the crater wall to suddenly collapse and unleash enough water and volcanic debris to sweep away 18 barrios and bury the town of Botolan about 40 kilometers northwest of the mountain.

The numbers potentially affected totals 7,600 families of some 39,000 people. The level of the water was within 5 meters from the rim before the government decided to act.

Ayta tribesmen built the canal over 22 days using only hand tools - picks, shovels and wheelbarrows - because there are no roads to bring earthmoving vehicles to the summit and the unstable ground ruled out the use of explosives. On board three army trucks, the first team of workers crossed the lahar-choked O'Donnel River until they reached the farthest point where vehicles can pass on the volcano's Tarlac side. Early in the morning of August 16, they began a day's perilous walk carrying the tools and provisions as they climbed the steep slopes to the summit. Finally crossing the 300-meter deep crater in a rubber boat, they reached the Maraunot notch on the Zambales side of the mountain where they butchered a pig in ritual offering, looked to the sky and prayed to Apo Namalyari for safety.

It was reported that initially the workers were paid a mere 180 pesos (Aus. $7.20) plus an allocation of rice and canned food per day, despite the extreme danger of the task. But, later it was said their wage was raised to 250 pesos (Aus. $10), the daily minimum wage.

The Philvocs (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) plan was to release 24 million cubic meters, just over eleven percent, of the water in the crater through a two-meter wide, four-meter deep and 75-meter long trench, to spill into the Bucao-Marunot River toward the South China Sea on Luzon's west coast. There were initial concerns that digging the canal might trigger the flood of lahar it was supposed to avert.

The LAKAS Ayta community began disaster preparations for a crisis situation long before the local government's announcement of evacuation procedures. They prepared, not only for their own community, but also for the people, Aytas and non-Aytas, living on the adjacent low lying land. They built temporary shelters on the high ground they are reforesting above their village and purchased extra emergency stocks of rice, salt and kerosene for the evacuees sheltering in the nearby school and for the visitors who would inevitably pass through their land to camp on the upper slopes of the mountain.

By September 4, in under three weeks from the start of cutting the spillway, the water level in the crater had risen by four meters, and was only one meter from the rim. The official evacuation of the township and the surrounding villages began the next day. It was reported that many families who live in two-storey houses in the town said they preferred to stay. Botolan officials responded they would have to sign affidavits attesting they would not comply with the local authority's order to evacuate at their own risk.

On September 6, the engineers decided to finally open the canal and the water trickled out.

FMM Sr. Victoria Mendoza, sent in this report: "The breaching of the canal continued then they opened it at around 10:00am. Thanks be to God, the flow of the Mt. Pinatubo lake water was gentle and there was no harm done as anticipated. After two days, some of the evacuees returned to their homes while others waited for another day. But we remained watchful in case a typhoon or strong rains came. Up to now, the water is flowing gently. Let's just unite in prayer that the water will remain gentle or if ever it becomes stronger, it won't do any harm to anybody or to anything. "

- Dee Dicen Hunt

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