In managing vulnerability to natural disasters, with case studies of volcanic disasters on non-industrialized islands

Table 12-3: WWW Sites Related to Montserrat’s Volcanic Crisis


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Table 12-3: WWW Sites Related to Montserrat’s Volcanic Crisis

(These sites were accessed in May and June 1998)



Government of Montserrat

and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory

Michigan Technical University

Montserrat Information Access Centre

Montserrat Information Archives

Smithsonian Institute’s Global Volcanism Network

The Emer@ld Network


Volcano World

The Internet has provided a cheap and effective way of disseminating a wide variety of information very rapidly in an ongoing volcanic crisis...

Good links to the net and server support are vital for effective Internet usage. In a disaster situation, lack of communication can be interpreted as bad news...

We have found that having a good Web site can generate a great deal of unwanted attention from an interested public, which can be very time-consuming. We have abundant conventional correspondence from school children and college students, job seekers and cranks...

Finally, the Internet should not replace human interaction, especially in crisis situations.

One proviso which Dr. Young should have added to his list of observations is that due to the lack of regulation of the Internet, a user should be aware of the potential abuses which could occur.

Young’s (1998) observation about the “great deal of unwanted attention” is unfortunate since these enquiries from non-scientists provide a superb opportunity for public relations and for publicizing the work of volcanologists. Response to a volcanic eruption is an example of scientific analysis which is high-profile and which is clearly relevant to many people outside of the scientific world, hence it provides a chance for pedagogy, for demystifying scientific operations, and for publicizing the role of specialists, such as engineers. Dr. Young and MVOT are presumably under severe pressure and constraints with too few resources and therefore would prefer to eliminate all unessential activities, but by dismissing this opportunity as Young (1998) does, the image of the aloof, incomprehensible scientist is perpetuated. Interestingly, when this author emailed queries to MVOT, Gill Norton of MVOT replied swiftly in a friendly and detailed fashion (the reference to Norton (1998)). Ms. Norton did not know the answer to one of the questions and forwarded it to Dr. Young who responded briefly after nearly two weeks.

The Internet, particularly the WWW, has also provided means for Montserratians to inform the world of their views directly, without mollification from MVOT or distortion from the media--as has occurred during this crisis. The Montserrat Information Archives ( or contains a wealth of personal essays, open letters, and anecdotes from Montserratians about life during the crisis. Frustrations about incompetence in importing fuel and rebuttals to media and scientific reports yield a fascinating, first-hand picture about life on an island during a crisis without the need for expensive and labour-intensive field research, letters, faxes, or telephone calls. Public services are also provided through “Making Connections” ( for notices about missing Montserratians and through compilations of local and international media reports on the crisis ( for the interested observer.

12.3.5 Vulnerability of Caribbean Islands

The volcanic crisis has proved to be a lucid demonstration to the Caribbean islands of their vulnerability to natural disasters. Caribbeans are used to, though not inured to, hurricanes and volcanoes, but they are rarely confronted with a situation which might entail permanently abandoning one of their islands. Howe (1997c) states that “The demise of Montserrat reflects the fragility of all these tiny islands” (p. 25) and believes that Caribbeans prefer to ignore their potential doom rather than to confront it and attempt rectification: “In Tobago the locals’ fatalism is born of a sense of permanently impending calamity” (Howe, 1997c, p. 25), a clear cultural/philosophical boundary (section 6.4.1) which would have to be overcome in order to manage vulnerability properly.

This situation is representative of psychological boundaries and influences which impact vulnerability to natural disasters and the role of technology (sections 3.3 and 6.4). Without recognition by a society of their vulnerability and a willingness to manage it, solutions--both technological and non-technological--will likely fail. Technology and engineers can contribute to preserving the Caribbean way of life in the face of volcanic (and other natural) hazards, particularly through monitoring and risk analyses before and during events. If those results are not communicated or are not listened to, then inappropriate reactions to the information will inevitably occur.

The absence of interest in applying technology to managing vulnerability to natural disasters on Caribbean islands may arise somewhat from the comfort of non-technological solutions used previously for managing vulnerability. The predominant non-technological solution witnessed during the Soufrière Hills eruption has been emigration. Although there are some Montserratians who have refused to leave or who expect to return after the crisis, the majority seem have little compunction about making a new life elsewhere (Williams and Musi, 1997). The main objection to emigration from Montserrat has been the lack of financial and political support from the U.K. government for permanent resettlement (section 12.3.2). Howe (1997b) states (p. 34):

Caribbean peoples have also long been known for their migratory instincts. Sentiment has habitually been transcended by economic necessity. Montserratians are no exception. I can only imagine that staying on the island is a tactic to strengthen their bargaining hand for a full and final settlement.

Howe (1997c) also writes (p. 25):

My adopted daughter, whose birth farther is a Montserratian, asked me: “Can anyone describe themselves as a Montserratian any more?”.

“Could they ever?” I replied sternly.

She shrugged and walked away into the Tobago sunset.

The migration solution, boosted by the apparent lack of feeling for Montserrat as a homeland (which is possibly influenced by the island’s colonial status), is a valid approach to reducing vulnerability to natural hazards through land-use strategies (compare to section 12.3.3).

12.4 Conclusions

Technology and engineering did play and continue to play useful roles during the eruption of Soufrière Hills, but there were other influences which overwhelmed technology’s usefulness and applicability. Political and economic influences (sections 3.4 and 3.5) inhibited technology’s effectiveness which, coupled with psychological boundaries and influences (sections 3.3 and 6.4), reduced the prominence and consideration of technological solutions. Issues of selecting appropriate design loads (Chapter 4) and proper land-use with respect to volcanic hazards have been somewhat buried. The lack of preventive approaches discussed in Chapter 5 stems from the perceived lack of need for preventive approaches, because preventive technological solutions have previously not been a high priority for Montserrat (compare to section 5.3.3). The fatalistic attitude, reminiscent of attitude and belief system influences on vulnerability (section 3.3) and cultural/philosophical boundaries (section 6.4.1), is prevalent amongst Montserratians--”Faith is the islanders’ bedrock” (Williams and Musi, 1997, p. 70)--and creeps into many of the issues discussed in section 12.3.

Scales are also important for the situation on Montserrat. The temporal scale of the volcano’s eruptive history is far greater than the temporal scale of Montserratian society (section 12.2; compare to section 6.3). Before 1995, society had not directly experienced a volcanic eruption from Soufrière Hills, and this past experience downplayed concerns of a volcanic eruption’s consequences. Views of temporal scales are even influencing contemporary decision-making: Frank Savage, Britain’s governor of Montserrat at the start of the volcanic crisis, stated (Williams and Musi, 1997) that “The north of the island has not been affected by a volcano in two million years [except for falling ash from Soufrière Hills since 1995], so we’ve based all our contingency plans on that” (p. 68). The wisdom of this attitude relates to the understanding of return periods and temporal characteristics discussed in Part I (sections 4.4.2, 4.4.3, and 6.3), but also introduces the spatial scale of the eruption (section 6.2). The spatial scale of Soufrière Hills’ effects encompasses clearly defined and coincident political and physical boundaries: the island of Montserrat. Decisions must therefore be made regarding the safety of using technology and other tools to maintain settlements within these boundaries versus the appropriateness of vacating a political and cultural region just because a natural hazard threatens.

13. Technology and Volcanic Disasters on Non-Industrialized Islands

13.1 Comparison of Case Studies

Volcanic eruptions yield diverse hazards with wide-ranging impacts to which society is highly vulnerable (Chapter 9). Volcanic hazards and society’s vulnerability lead to volcanic disasters, which are particularly prominent for non-industrialized islands (Chapter 10) as illustrated by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (Chapter 11) and Soufrière Hills in Montserrat (Chapter 12). This chapter compares and contrasts these two case studies in order to extract themes related to the role of technology in managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters on non-industrialized islands. Volcanic eruptions rarely resemble each other in fine detail but there are nonetheless similarities in the issues which arose and in how these issues are dealt with in the case studies (section 13.1.1). There are also some differences between the case studies for these issues (section 13.1.2). Section 13.1.3 discusses the IDNDR (section 1.1) with respect to these case studies.

13.1.1 Similarities

The influences on vulnerability discussed in Chapter 3 were evident during both case studies. The main demographic influence (section 3.2) for both eruptions was that populations had settled in areas vulnerable to the respective volcanoes because concerns other than vulnerability to natural disasters superseded concerns about a volcanic eruption. This decision to settle these areas was not necessarily flawed since neither Mount Pinatubo nor Soufrière Hills had previously posed dangers during society’s settlements in those locations--a contrast in temporal scales between society and the environment (section 6.3). Population increases coupled with the desire to explore new land for political and economic reasons led to encroachment onto and near Mount Pinatubo (the Aetas were actually forced further up the slopes by Filipino settlements) and to settlement on Montserrat. One contrast within this similarity is that the settlement of Mount Pinatubo was predominantly a local desire of subsistence farmers for better land while the settlement of Montserrat was predominantly an international, empire-building, profit-driven desire of politicians and entrepreneurs for better land.

Further similarities are observed in the influence of attitudes and belief systems (section 3.3) and psychological boundaries (section 6.4) which often inhibited appropriate vulnerability prevention measures. Cross-cultural communication difficulties exacerbated problems. Individuals and communities would not accept, or were not properly informed about, the vulnerability prevention measures and the reasons for the measures. Detrimental political and economic influences (sections 3.4 and 3.5) added to the confusion, in instances such as the corruption and incompetence during the construction of protective works against Mount Pinatubo lahars (section 11.3.4) and Westminster’s indifference to Montserrat (section 12.3.2). Technology’s effectiveness was blocked in key areas during both eruptions due to these factors.

Another similarity is that prior to the eruptions, there was minimal implementation of preventive measures related to volcanic disasters on both islands. Some land-use planning existed, but it was based on criteria other than vulnerability to a volcanic disaster. Designs and design loads rarely factored in potential volcanic loads. There were also few attempts at educating the population about volcanic hazards and disasters until the eruptions. As mentioned earlier, these decisions are not easy to criticize since there was little reason to fear severe volcanic activity in these locations. Following each eruption, reasonable land-use measures were implemented--though not particularly promptly with respect to lahars from Mount Pinatubo--and although design load issues were raised, they could have been examined more closely on each island.

Despite the problems, both eruptions demonstrated some similar successes. The response to each eruption was swift, was relatively competent logistically, and resulted in minimal death tolls considering the size of the vulnerable populations. A combination of technological and non-technological solutions helped achieve the successes. Both islands, which were non-industrialized, also had an industrialized nation overseeing the efforts, making an immense difference in the availability of resources, which is further evidence of the political and economic influences on vulnerability (sections 3.3. and 3.4). The Philippines relied on the U.S.A., their former colonial power, while Montserrat relied on the U.K., their current colonial power, although American technology and technical expertise was prominent. The challenges in exercising colonial power in a post-colonial world were evident during both eruptions, in the debate with respect to the American military bases in the Philippines (section 11.3.1) and the ambivalence in the U.K.’s attitude about foreign aid for Montserrat (section 12.3.2).

Irrespective of the political difficulties, each eruption illustrated the benefits and positive potential of international scientific cooperation. In both instances, a reasonable amount of technology transfer was completed, given that the scientists were in the midst of a volcanic crisis and thus had other concerns, which will be invaluable for future volcanic problems in the Philippines and the Caribbean. The two volcano observatory teams, particularly for Mount Pinatubo, did have problems explaining concerns to the local populations, but they were generally able to overcome the difficulties through creativity and cooperation with non-scientific personnel. Both eruptions demonstrated some similarities in the positive and negative roles of technology in managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters, but overall, the case studies demonstrated how effective technology could be, if implemented appropriately and in combination with non-technological solutions.

13.1.2 Differences

Aside from the detailed characteristics of the particular volcanic hazards from each volcano, there were also marked differences in their spatiotemporal scales. There was just 75 days between Mount Pinatubo’s initial activity and its climactic eruption, although minor volcanic activity has continued since then. Soufrière Hills has been erupting for almost three years without reaching its peak activity, and there is no guarantee that a definitive, climactic eruption will occur, although frequent activity is expected for several more years. For society, these temporal scales are quite different and numerically they are a different order of magnitude (0.2 years for Mount Pinatubo compared to 3+ years for Soufrière Hills), but it is questionable whether the temporal scale is indeed different since both eruptions are effectively instantaneous on the geologic scale of time.

Mount Pinatubo has had global climatic impacts, hence its spatial scale is the planet, whereas Soufrière Hills has had little environmental impact outside Montserrat and virtually none outside the Eastern Caribbean. Both eruptions have had international political impacts, but the issue of the American military bases in the Philippines affects more widespread and wide-ranging geopolitical issues in the late twentieth century than the U.K.’s troubles with its overseas territories.

Interestingly, the national impact of each eruption is reversed in relation to the international impact. Mount Pinatubo affected a global spatial scale, but the Philippines and the Filipino people have nicely survived the eruption, with American assistance. Soufrière Hills, however, affects a local spatial scale yet has effectively destroyed the viability of Montserrat as political entity and has scattered the Montserratian people, possibly irrevocably. These case studies exemplify the clash which can occur between spatial scales of the environment and society (section 6.2) and also emphasize the challenge of maintaining a viable community in the face of adversity on a small island such as Montserrat rather than a larger island nation such as the Philippines.

Differences between the two eruptions also manifests in some technology transfer issues. In the Philippines, there were four groups of cultures with different levels of technology, which were, from the most technological to the least technological: the American volcanologists, the Filipino volcanologists, the Filipino locals, and the Aetas. In Montserrat there were two such levels: the (non-Montserratian) volcanologists and the Montserratians. Caribbean volcanologists potentially form a middle level, but are not listed separately because they appeared to be much more integrated into their volcanological team than the Filipino volcanologists. Whereas the Filipino volcanologists requested American help because they could not handle the situation on their own, the Caribbean volcanologists were invited to be part of the team on Montserrat.

As an aside, appearances from the literature about the extent of cooperation between the volcanologists could be deceptive. The Caribbean and the Filipino volcanologists could have been equally included in or excluded from their respective volcano teams without the situation being properly noted in the literature. The published literature on the two eruptions is written primarily by the most technologically advanced cultural groups: the volcanologists. The other dominant authors in the literature were journalists, observing and reporting events. Both the volcanologists and the journalists tended to have a modern Western bias, although the journalists discussed the less technologically advanced cultural groups (e.g., England, 1993a and 1993b; Goertzen, 1991; Howe, 1997a, 1997b, and 1997c; “The Voice of God”, 1991; Williams and Musi, 1997) far more often than the volcanologists. Since the lesser technologically advanced cultural groups do not have as much opportunity to publish their views as the more technologically advanced cultural groups, the literature is likely overly biased towards the views of the more technologically advanced cultural groups. Therefore, although the literature does indicate a certain level of cooperation amongst the different groups, these appearances could be deceptive.

Technology transfer and cross-cultural communication seemed to become more challenging as more of the aforementioned cultural groups with different levels of technology were traversed. Therefore, technology transfer was perhaps easier in Montserrat than around Mount Pinatubo. The Filipino volcanologists and civil authorities had severe difficulties in using technology with and for the Aetas and the results were severe consequences--many deaths amongst the Aetas--which could have been anticipated and prevented. Similar troubles arose with the Filipino locals, especially in countering lahars (section 11.3.4). In contrast, the problems with obtaining Montserratian cooperation arose primarily from political gaffes and political decisions rather than from engineering gaffes and decisions on technology (section 12.3.2). The two cultural groups present in Montserrat were also easier to integrate for joint decision-making than the four groups present in the Philippines, due to Montserrat’s smaller population, smaller geographical size, and narrower technological gaps between groups.

The final major difference between the two eruptions is the application of specific technologies and engineers. Montserrat included at least one identifiable engineer in the volcano observatory whereas in the Philippines, the volcano observatory seemed to be comprised of only scientists who, at times, ended up in conflict with engineers, such as the dispute between Dr. Raymundo S. Punongbayan and the Public Works Department (section 11.3.4). As well, the rapid development of the internet between 1991 and 1995 provided Montserrat with an advantage over the Philippines, by reducing the island’s psychological isolation--an opportunity not previously available. The internet is currently used widely to disseminate information about Mount Pinatubo, similarly to the manner of use for Montserrat (section 12.3.4), but there is no evidence to suggest that this availability, capability, and interest were present in 1991 during Mount Pinatubo’s main period of activity. Moreover, the use of the internet during Soufrière Hills’ eruption permits a broader spectrum of people to disseminate their views internationally. The previously discussed analysis of communication between cultural groups at different levels of technology thus had more material for Montserrat than for the Philippines and there can be more confidence in the results for Montserrat. Of course, only a select group of Montserratians have the opportunity to make use of the internet, so the results may still overly reflect the views of the more technologically advanced cultural group in Montserrat.

These differences between the two eruptions indicate that the cultural and political context of using technology impacts the effectiveness of that technology. The same technology may also be required to perform different types of roles depending on the specific natural disaster event.

13.1.3 IDNDR

Four years of the IDNDR (sections 1.1 and 9.4) elapsed between the initial eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the initial eruption of Soufrière Hills. Investigating for any improvements in international volcano crisis response as a result of the IDNDR is important for determining the effectiveness of the IDNDR. Unfortunately, since the literature for the two eruptions rarely mentions the IDNDR, and does not discuss the activities of the IDNDR in relation to the activities at the two volcano observatories, it appears that the IDNDR has had little direct impact. Neither Soufrière Hills nor Mount Pinatubo were selected as Decade Volcanoes (Table 9-4 in section 9.4) further reducing the potential of a significant influence from the IDNDR.

The indirect impact, however, is liable to be more consequential but less obvious. For example, some of the twelve projects for managing vulnerability to volcanic disasters proposed by IAVCEI (1990; see section 9.4) involve electronic communication networks amongst volcanologists, training many sectors of society to deal with volcanic crises, and development and application of new technologies to volcanic disaster management. These projects would have a gradual impact on volcanology and it would be challenging to differentiate these projects’ results from the normal rate of progress expected in science and engineering. For example, establishing whether the prominence of the internet during Soufrière Hills’ eruption, as compared to Mount Pinatubo’s eruption (section 13.1.2), resulted from the influence of the IDNDR or the increased popularity of the internet (or, more likely, both) is subjective. Similarly, the improved integration of locals into volcanology work seen in Montserrat, as compared to the Philippines, could be a result of IDNDR initiatives, different and fewer cultural groups (section 13.1.2), prior experience and research, good project management, or a combination of these factors.

The IDNDR’s influence is not obvious but might be present either significantly or to a lesser degree. The fact that the IDNDR’s influence is not obvious may be indicative of the IDNDR’s lack of success, yet the Soufrière Hills eruption occurred in 1995, only half-way through the IDNDR. As well, much of the IDNDR’s volcanic work is related to developing and establishing long-term projects which could require much of the IDNDR for setting up, but which will reap significant effects long after the IDNDR finishes. Criticizing the IDNDR for apparently not changing volcanic crisis response methods between the Mount Pinatubo and Soufrière Hills eruptions may be premature or completely unjustified.

13.2 Recommendations

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