The Tagaytay City of today is not the same sleepy town I knew 25 years ago when my family started frequenting the place on weekends and holidays. Back then, there were still lots of open spaces, clearings, green grass, trees, and pineapple plants. And, one could easily view Taal Lake and the volcano from anywhere on the ridge, along the main highway to Nasugbu.
As of last Sunday, Tagaytay was a boomtown. Residential and commercial buildings were on the rise. Lots of construction and tourism development going on. Even on weekdays the city was bustling, unlike in the past when the place came to life only on weekends and holidays. And there are now more roads going to and from the city. Big shopping malls have likewise sprouted.
Tagaytay also has a growing community of residents, many of them retirees and balikbayans. A lot of migrants have been moving to the city in the last 25 years, primarily for the weather and the scenery. And while it has also become congested, Tagaytay was still a good option as it was not as densely populated as Metro Manila, or big towns like Imus and Dasmariñas. The weather was conducive for gardening, too.
But since Taal Volcano started erupting Sunday afternoon, the place has become a ghost town. What was green has become dusty if not muddy gray. People have evacuated, and many businesses have temporarily shut down. Many have left not by choice. Practically the whole of Tagaytay City is within the 14-kilometer danger or evacuation zone, as measured by its radius to the volcano’s crater.
Tagaytay first became a chartered city in 1938, about 27 years after the destructive eruption of Taal Volcano in 1911. At that point, it was unlikely that government planners considered the possibility of another destructive eruption within their lifetime. The last eruption from the main crater in 1911 was said to have obliterated the crater floor, creating the present lake.
Despite the volcano’s long history of activity and eruptions, Tagaytay had always adapted and overcome. In similar fashion, I believe that despite a possibly destructive eruption this year, I am certain Tagaytay will again adapt and overcome. It will survive. It must, for the sake of its people who cannot afford to be displaced.
There are roughly one million people living within the volcano’s 17-kilometer danger zone, of which about 460,000 are within the riskier 14-kilometer danger zone. Many of these people may have come from Metro Manila and nearby provinces, and had dispersed to Cavite’s cooler city over time. If displaced by a volcanic eruption, where can we expect them to go?
There is no way of telling how things will be. But if we go by our Pinatubo experience, then one can have some idea of the magnitude of the potential displacement, damage, and economic havoc that may be expected from a Taal eruption. The sad part is that people knew this could happen again, as it did in 1911 and before that. But the reward from developing Tagaytay appeared to have outweighed that risk. Only time can tell if the gamble was worth it.
Recall what the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption did to Central Luzon, and how it changed the landscape and the economy of the provinces of Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales, and Bataan. That was 24 years ago, when the region was not as developed and progressive as it is now. This, in a way, helped limit the damage. Just imagine if Pinatubo were to erupt now. The devastation will be severe, with heavy casualties.
Pinatubo is over 200 kilometers away from Metro Manila. This helps protect the center from its havoc in case of a destructive eruption. But Taal Volcano is just about 60 kilometers away. A Taal eruption now of the magnitude of Pinatubo in 1991 can have dire consequences for the capital and its neighboring provinces. One can only imagine the terrible destruction that can hit the whole of the Southern Luzon region.
“The Southern and Central Luzon as well as National Capital Region (NCR) are some of the heftier pistons of our country’s economic engine, and we will do what is necessary to get areas affected by this natural disaster up and running as fast as possible,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez was quoted as saying in a report in this paper.
He was also quoted as noting that NCR and the Calabarzon Region — made up of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon provinces — contributed 53% of the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, at 36% and 17%, respectively. Central Luzon had a 9% share. He also noted the country loses 1-2% of its yearly GDP due to natural disasters, especially typhoons.
The economy could lose as much as P35 billion because of the Taal eruption, the same report quoted the chief economist of a universal bank. In comparison, damage from the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 reached P25 billion, excluding the cost of caring for evacuees worth P6.7 billion, he added, citing a study by the National Economic and Development Authority.
It is precisely because of this issue with volcanic eruption that I have been questioning the government initiative to relocate the National Government and its agencies outside of Metro Manila to New Clark City in Tarlac by 2030. New Clark City is just about 25 kilometers from the crater of Pinatubo, the eruption of which in 1991 was deemed the second-largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century.
Who is to say that Pinatubo will not erupt again 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Let’s assume the country’s government center, the seat of power, is moved to New Clark City. What will be the implication of a major Pinatubo eruption, then? Are we not putting too much at risk by knowingly moving our government center nearer (about 25 kilometers) — rather than away — from an active volcano known for violent and destructive eruptions? Do the rewards outweigh the risks of relocating there?
Taal’s last major eruption was in 1911, more than 100 years ago. At that time, the crater caved in and became the lake. At least four Batangas towns were lost and had to be relocated. The landscape changed significantly. Prior to this, in a major eruption in the 1700s, Taal Lake lost its access to Balayan Bay after the Pansipit River was covered with earth. What are we to expect now in 2020? Must Tagaytay and other towns brace for the possibility of having to start all over?
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.