Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ash on Demand: Natural, Political and Economic Disasters

Even as Volcán Chaitén continues to burble, and ash turns to mud in the rain, it's getting harder and harder to say what the real disaster is. By any reasonable standard, Chilean emergency services did an exemplary job of evacuating the town of Chaitén and, though there have been some complaints from evacuees over their inability to return for their possessions and especially their pets, the only fatality was a 92-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack during the evacuation. At that age, she might have died in any event.

Chaitén's latest problem is a flood on the Río Blanco that has left more than a meter and a half of volcanic mud and other debris in parts of town. What has happened, apparently, is that tree trunks and other flotsam have formed a debris dam at the Avenida Carrera Pinto bridge that leads to the southbound Carretera Austral (Southern Highway); the water has backed up behind it and then spread onto the floodplain. With only a handful of emergency workers available in what is clearly a dangerous situation, there's not the manpower to do much about ensuing property damage. It's been suggested that the town might have to be relocated.

At the same time, some politicians from the conservative UDI party have started to scapegoat the government and environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins over the issue of building an interior road through the Parque Pumalín reserve. Tompkins has not opposed building a road to connect Puerto Montt to Chaitén, but has suggested that a coastal route, with a couple short ferry connections (such as the one that now crosses the Estero de Reloncaví southeast of Puerto Montt) , would be better than a road through Pumalín's impossibly rugged interior. It would also be far cheaper, but their primary goal seems to expropriation of a foreigner's property (though in fact Pumalín now belongs to a legally constituted Chilean foundation) rather than a road per se.

Even if an interior route were built it would, by my calculations, be no shorter than 350 km and, over such mountainous terrain, it would take at least seven hours for emergency vehicles to arrive from Puerto Montt. From the port of Quellón, across the Gulf of Corcovado on the island of Chiloé, the ferry crossing to Chaitén takes five hours on the rustbucket Alejandrina. In reality, it would be more efficient to improve the ferry system - a single ferry can carry deliver more relief supplies (including vehicles) faster than a flotilla of trucks that, in the case of Chaitén, could easily be blocked by floods (or even lava flows) in this sopping midlatitude rainforest.

In reality, nationalism trumps pragmatism in the political debate. Former President Ricardo Lagos, though, injected an element of common sense when he labeled the interior alternative as impractical "big words," even as he admitted it might eventually be built.

In the interim, ash continues to carry across the border into Argentina, covering large segments of Los Alerces National Park, on top of a major fire it suffered last summer. Up to two million sheep that graze the Patagonian steppe may be vulnerable because the ash is covering their pasture, according to Mercopress. Airborne ash has restricted flights from Buenos Aires to Argentine Patagonia.

Meanwhile, some Argentine "entrepreneurs" are seeing Chaitén's eruption as an opportunity. On Mercado Libre, the country's counterpart to eBay, several sellers have put fallen ashes up for auction.

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