The Social Ramifications of Volcanism

Manam in Papua New Guinea erupting in 2004

Five years ago, Manam volcano in Papua New Guinea erupted. The volcano is located on a 10-km island of the same name and when it erupted in 2004, it produced pyroclastic flows and lava flows to the tune of a VEI 4 eruption. It was decided that the 9,000 inhabitants of the island had to be evacuated but even so, five people died due to the eruption. However, there are still thousands of people in temporary care centers on the main island of Papua New Guinea. Tensions have flared with the local inhabitants, to the point that four former islanders have been murdered in recent months. There are also people who have been sent back to the island, scraping out a meager existence without much assistance from the PNG government. Without help, they will continue to face challenges that potentially rival the threat of the volcano itself. Sure, there have been many gestures made to solve the problem, but the situation for the people of Manam continues to be unstable (pdf link). The PNG government admits that the original evacuations were performed hastily, leaving both the islanders and care centers unprepared, and the situation continues to be mishandled by national and provincial officials.

This is the sort of post-eruption humanitarian issues that tend to go unnoticed in the scientific community. These crisis occurs months to years after the volcanic activity has ceased, yet they are very real problems to the people who have been displaced. Not only are the people facing hardship due to resentment and lack of appropriate resources, but their cultural identity is in danger due to the evacuation of their native island. These "hazards" have had an direct effect on the people of Manam, but none of them are directly related to the volcanism itself and one could argue that these new hazards related to the evacuation and resettlement might be causing more problems than they have solved. Mitigation for volcanism disasters needs to not only take into account the immediate effects of an eruption, but the long term ramifications of the actions of the governing bodies - Where will people go? How long will they need to be moved? Is it permanent? How will they sustain themselves? What social problems might be involved in moving the people? Manam should be a cautionary tale with hopes that places like Chaiten do not have to suffer these indignities.

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geology <> social structures. i like learning more about the earth's mechanisms, but if i wanted to hear about someone's feelings, i'd watch oprah.

Thank you for this in-depth look at a very little known emergency, which shows on what may seem to us a very minor scale the problems arising from the displacement of entire populations from their habitats exposed to volcanic risk. Now let us imagine a similar situation in the case the population near Vesuvius - more than half a million - needs to be evacuated and remain away from their homes for an extended period, especially if the volcano decides not to erupt immediately (Redoubt docet)...

Thank you for this blog post and for your attention to the social repercussions of disasters. It's timely and relevant.

I'd like to second the comments from Boris and Bria above. Thank you for writing about this issue, and for continuing to cover both the science and the social aspects of volcanism.

If that thing happened at Vesuvius....

Worst case scenario... Vesuvius stirs and shakes, geologists go on red alert and ask for Napoli to be evacuated.

500 thousand people to displace, stampede ensues, regional economics grind to a halt.... and Vesuvius calms down.

People go back to their home believing the worst is over, inspite of official warnings, and when the volcano starts acting up again, nobody pays attention...

Then Vesuvius explodes and buries Napoli into meters of ash...

It's the story of the little boy who cried wolf...

By volcanophile (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

Rainier -- Seattle. Imagine where all those people are going to have to go.

One of the things I wished our government had done when the cold war downsizing was going on was to save one of the major decommissioned military bases, say Fort Ord, California, to be used as an evacuation center in case of a regional emergency.

The bases would have had family housing, dormitory housing for singles, grocery store, department store, other shops, hospital, dental facilities, etc. It is perfect for a temporary community for displaced people in an emergency. If a volcano, major earthquake or other disaster were to strike, many could be evacuated immediately. There were even air terminal facilities at many of the bases. And there was ample room at many of them for even more housing if needed in trailers or tents.

The idea would be to get people out of an area that lacks basic services such as clean water, sewage services, and electricity into an area where they can at least survive without worry of disease or injury.

We should do the same with decommissioned aircraft carriers. A carrier makes a great emergency floating hospital. Replace the airplanes with helicopters, convert the living space to medical wards, and you have the ability to move a fully functioning, self-contained hospital into an emergency area in a hurry. And the carrier can provide power and possibly clean water to emergency shore services if needed too.

We have so much capability to use excess resources to do good but the problem is the use is so infrequent that it becomes difficult to justify the maintenance expense. I would much rather see an aircraft carrier on each coast and one in the Gulf of Mexico on standby for emergency duty and salvage one large military base someplace for use as a national emergency evacuation center.

Much of the population of Montserrat has suffered the same kind of forced evacuation. Wonder how they are getting along.

Excellent, excellent thinking George.

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink

Re Montserrat; if you can find it, there's an excellent book, 'Fire From The Mountain' by Polly Pattullo (ISBN 0094793603) which gives a detailed account, in non-technical language, of the eruption and its drastic social consequences for the displaced Montserratians up to about 1999. I haven't heard of any recent major problems for those who relocated to the UK, and no news is -perhaps- good news in that regard.

You see, this is what I love about posts like this. It gets comments like George's that really bring in ideas that are not mainstream but just make sense. The long term ramifications of an eruptions - or a new period of eruptions - at Rainier or Vesuvius or Fuji will do a lot more than just muck things up for a few weeks. There will be long term or perhaps permanent displacement of people that will occur. We saw what happened with Katrina in New Orleans, so hopefully we can learn some lessons from that debacle and apply that to future disasters that require people to leave their homes of months to years.

Also, thanks Mike Don for the book recommendation. Sounds like one I need to track down.

There are still a few thousand living on Montserrat. They are trying to get tourism going again. If you go there the locals will be very happy to see you.

I'm still learning from you, as I'm making my way to the top as well. I absolutely liked reading all that is written on your website.Keep the tips coming. I liked it