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Disaster was just waiting to happen

Published Feb. 25, 2006

Experts knew the farming village of Guinsaugon sat atop a major earthquake fault and were planning to issue a warning when a landslide buried nearly all its residents.

But it appears that heavy rain - not an earthquake - caused the cascade of mud and boulders from Mount Kan-abag. No survivors have been found since the first hours after the disaster on Leyte island, and more than 1,000 people are feared dead.

Rampant illegal logging, harsh weather, unstable terrain and bureaucratic shortcomings have raised concerns that the tragedy could be repeated elsewhere.

The Philippines is on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a sprawling region where earthquakes and volcanic activity are common. Leyte, an impoverished island 420 miles southeast of Manila, lies on unstable ground straddling the Philippine Fault, which zigzags from north to south along the archipelago.

In 2003, government geologists listed more than 80 percent of Leyte as prone to geological hazards like landslides.

"Geologically, it is underlain by volcanic rocks characterized by intense fracturing and weathering, which makes it unstable and susceptible to mass movement," the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in a statement issued the day after the Feb. 17 landslide.

Government geologist Malin Tumonong said the landslide "was a disaster waiting to happen in some ways."

"Our tectonic setting is ripe for many geological hazards like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, flooding and landslides," she said.

A "geohazard map" showing landslide-prone regions in the Philippines has been around for years, but it is not detailed enough to indicate which towns are in danger. Last year, officials started a three-year program to make a more detailed map.

In January, regional geologists decided to include St. Bernard town, which has 30 villages including Guinsaugon, among areas to be surveyed for the new map this year because of the high possibility of landslides.

"Unfortunately, the landslide struck before the plan got under way," Tumonong said.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the release of $1.5-million this week to speed the development of new maps.

St. Bernard Mayor Maria Lim said she had been told of the fault that runs beneath the island, but did not think it triggered the monstrous landslide. There was a minor earthquake in the area last week, but it occurred after the avalanche.

"The truth is we did not know that the landslide would hit," Lim said. "Nobody knew."

Disasters are not new to Leyte.

A flash flood swept down from the hills into Ormoc city on the western side of the island in 1991, killing about 6,000 people. A 2003 landslide in San Francisco, southern Leyte, killed 133. Seven road workers died in a landslide in Sogod town five days before nearby Guinsaugon's tragedy.

Environmentalists, led by Greenpeace, have accused the government of failing to do enough to prevent the disaster by refusing to enforce a nationwide logging ban and putting measures in place to protect communities like Guinsaugon from flash floods or landslides.

"If the government were serious to begin with, we could have avoided a repeat of this type of disaster," said Von Hernandez, campaign director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

He suggested that widespread logging - which can leave soil unstable - contributed to the disaster, but other conservationists have discounted that, given the size of the landslide and the rain that preceded it.

"It's unlikely that any past deforestation - legal or illegal - has really played a significant role in causing that landslide," said Patrick Durst, senior forestry officer with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

"There really is not much debate over whether tree cover could have held it in place. From what we know about the rainfall, it's quite clear what happened," he said.

Rather than focusing on logging bans or reforestation campaigns, the government should be looking at how to better identify hazardous areas and consider moving endangered communities, Durst said.

But forcing people to move isn't easy.

Many poor villagers living on or near mountains say they have nowhere to go and would lose their livelihood. When geologists warned that villages near Guinsaugon were in danger of landslides, Lim ordered them cleared of people; some refused to go.

"I had to call in the army," Lim said.

Now just a muddy wasteland studded with boulders, Guinsaugon should be turned into a cemetery or a memorial to remind others of the cost of living in a hazardous zone, she said.