Monday, August 01, 2005

Papua New Guinea has more than its fair share of volcano eruptions

A giant cloud of dark ash billows from the roaring volcano as boulder-sized lava fragments shoot skywards before splashing into the sea like shells in a naval battle.This is Tavurvur, which in September 1994 erupted along with nearby Vulcan to destroy much of the port town of Rabaul on the Papua New Guinea island of New Britain. The volcano continues to put on an awesome display and is a spectacular drawcard for adventurous tourists as it roars like a jet while spewing out clouds of ash.

The ash regularly rains down on the nearby residents of Rabaul who show true grit as they get on with their lives and try to rebuild the ravaged town.Evacuations during the 1994 eruptions saved most of the population but not the property - only three people died under the ash deluge.Rabaul, once renowned as a pearl of the Pacific, is a grit-encrusted shadow of its former self, part of it a desolate wasteland of banked-up grey ash, ruins and scrub.

When the ash is falling, there is a whiff of sulphur in the air and grit gets into eyes, ears and hair.Roofs, roads, parks, gardens and vehicles end up covered in a sand-like coating of fine ash, which needs to be constantly cleared away.Residents sometimes wear masks or bandanas when outside, while swimming pools in the town have long been made redundant by the falling ash which also makes metal rust faster when the sulphur and rainwater mix.

But many of Rabaul's people, including longtime Australian and Chinese residents, trust the ash falls will stop one day and are determined to revitalise "volcano town".It's not the first time Rabaul has risen from the ashes - it was rebuilt after Allied bombing flattened it during the Japanese occupation in World War II and was rebuilt after the 1937 eruption of Vulcan that killed around 500 people.By the hot springs across the water from Tavurvur as it pours forth plumes of ash, 80-year-old Ken Kolias Towok of nearby Matupit village, recalls the 1937 eruption.

His village escaped destruction but as Vulcan emerged from the sea, great waves of water swept onto the coastal settlements and took people without warning.Matupit also escaped destruction in 1994 but the ensuing ash falls destroyed crops, contaminated water supplies and made life tough for villagers, Towok says.The ash clouds blocked out the sky and people had to use torches during the day, he recalls.Food gardening near the volcano has been curbed by the ash falls, Towok says, and many Matupit people have moved 100km away to a government-provided settlement at Sikut where they can grow crops.

Towok says volcanoes are good when they create new land and his people believe Tavurvur will keep on erupting ash for a while yet.Last year the volcano did stop emitting ash for 11 months before starting again in January this year.While it broils away, an annual seasonal wind change gives Rabaul residents a few months reprieve each year as the ash is blown out to sea or across the harbour where it can stop flights into Tokua Airport.

The latest report from the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory outlines an increase in activity with ash plumes up to 2,000m high and the ejection of lava fragments.Measurement of earthquake activity suggests eruptive activity will continue indefinitely, the observatory says.It is not warning of any life-threatening boost in activity at this stage and many see the continuous venting of the volcano as averting a dangerous build-up of pressure.

Englishman Nick Lyons of Rabaul Metal Industries says the ash falls impose a huge burden on maintenance staff in local industries and businesses."We are just forever cleaning up. It's not destroying anything, it's just making life very unpleasant," he said."The people who really suffer are the people in the villages who don't have permanent materials for their houses."Lyons notes that PNG government policy is that nothing should be done to encourage Rabaul as a residential area.

"That's probably wise given that every 50 years or so there might be a catastrophic event, it's hard to defend spending lots of money."But the area has a high population and a large number of people will continue to live in Rabaul and require adequate services such as schools and clinics, Lyons says."The evacuated are coming back and trying to reestablish themselves. I guess the government is understandably cautious about providing services but they have to address the reality that lots of people continue to live around here.

"For the dozens of foreign tourists who came to Rabaul for this month's annual festival celebrating PNG's traditional mask cultures, the volcano was a major attraction and they put up with the ash showers as part of the show.East New Britain Chamber of Commerce President Bruce Alexander, an Australian, wants to see four such annual events to attract more tourists and hopes a six-volcano adventure race for athletes will kick off next year.

Rabaul has much to offer tourists with its volcanoes, scuba diving and colonial and war history, but business visitors prefer to stay across the harbour at Kokopo, says Alexander, who runs the Hamamas Hotel with his wife Suzie.The volcano is a good excuse to slow up planning but the authorities need to ensure a proper level of services in Rabaul, including health clinics, schools, a new market, police station and fire truck, he says.

Australian Tim Wilson has been in Rabaul since 1968 and manages the Travel Lodge where he employs three people just to clean up the ash. He says it's disappointing when politicians push everything to Kokopo where most government services now operate."There's a priority list. Kokopo always ends up on top. It's a services thing, we feel we are very second class citizens."But private businesses have been leading the government back to Rabaul, Wilson says."This is where we chose to be and now we are here we just have to make the best of it. In some ways it's character building."

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