Although there are many hazards on a physical geographic scale associated with volcanic eruptions, it is important not to neglect the havoc which also engulfs the social and economic world. Both social and economic effects occur on a spatial and temporal scale causing significant repercussions in a regional, national and even a global context. It is not only the initial eruption but the continuous secondary hazards, such as, lahars, pyroclastic flows and tsunamis that have the major impact on economic and social structures.
It is these factors that are responsible for the great social losses in the sense of belonging and society, the human loss of life and the huge economic losses incurred from damaged infrastructures, business interactions and the general cost of re-building. It is therefore ironic that these great economic and social impacts often affect the most vulnerable people in the world.
Global Economic Pressures
The pattern of financial interactions between the industrialised North and Third World has significantly changed in the light of decolonisation.
Demand in both agricultural and mineral exports dependant to many Third World countries has steadily declined, whereas imports have maintained high price rates, often leading countries to incur significant foreign debts. For example, Africa debt servicing amounts to approximately 40-50% of export earnings (ROAPE, 1990). Outcomes to such economic crisis’ and pressures has resulted in, on one hand, the intensification of natural resource exportation leading to further forestry and soil degradation, thus increasing natural disaster vulnerability (Tierney, 1992). On the other hand, reduction in ‘public spending’ results in inadequate facilities; education, hospital welfare and safe infrastructures which are able to cope with natural disasters.
“…Increase in vulnerability of a significant proportion of the urban population to natural disasters. This results from the fact that property owners faced with such high mortgage interest rates simply ignore maintenance.” (Ford, 1987)
Social Aspects – vulnerability to hazard warnings
Although there have been several successful evacuations through effective warning schemes, e.g., Mt Pinatubo, Mt Etna, a number of serious social negative effects may also result. Within these areas many sick and elderly people died due to the communal camp living conditions present in the evacuation areas. Cyclonic rainfall compounded volcanic ash falls exacerbating the unhealthy living conditions. In other cases ‘panic’ evacuation along with the threat of blighted property and falling price values also affect the social matrix of the target area.
Consequently, the risk of legal action can even make prediction in such areas politically unacceptable. It has often been argued that mass and total evacuation could constitute a disaster with a greater impact than that of a natural phenomenon. It has been stated that traffic problems and accidents could occur on a Herculean scale, crime and looting, great economic loss and an acute difficulty in maintaining public services on a regional and national basis could occur in addition to the increased risk to public health. In particular risks to public health would typically affect the displaced population, often through inadequate sanitation, the psychiatric stress of uncertainty and anxiety.
Consequently great social and economic problems are often incurred. This is often exacerbated in evacuation situations and when predictions are subsequently wrong. For example, in 1976 73000 people were evacuated from the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles. They remained displaced for a three and a half month period resulting in huge economic losses and great social strain on both the population and government. The volcano never erupted with only minor activity observed (Blong, 1984).
In contrast, the products from volcanic eruptions can be highly beneficial to society (fertile soils). In 1992, Cerro Negro erupted near Leon in Nicaragua. A thick layer of ash was subsequently deposited giving rise to economic concerns involving agricultural practices. However, within 10 months farmers were reaping the benefits of bumper harvests (Baxter, 1993). Such benefits consequently constitute an extremely powerful social and economic force. In fact it has been suggested that people inhabiting these ‘high-risk zones’ for such natural benefits are ‘gamblers by nature’.
Policy Response and Mitigation
On a positive note volcanic disasters can be used to change unjust social and economic structures. Popular development organisations can capitalise on a disaster event to challenge and possibly change vulnerable, unjust political, social and economic structures;
” Disasters will often set up a dynamic in which social structures can be overturned, and relief and rehabilitation judiciously applied can help change the status quo; while projects will be the models will be the models in micro-cosm that can be used to demonstrate to government the possibilities of a variety of ways of working.” (Holloway, 1989)
Secondly, Anderson’s and Woodrow’s (1989) notion of ‘rising from the ashes’ depicts the strengthening of local institutions and the increased capability of families to reduce their own vulnerability.
“… Is just as much a product of socio-economic factors as technical ones. The best hope for a communities recovery in a disaster is to have a history of strong organisation; it is to this end that local institutions must direct their efforts.”
Thirdly, disasters provide an opportunity to develop effective risk assessment with good cost-benefit arguments for protective measures. For example, In La Paz, Bolivia the World Bank has been offering encouragement to the Local Authorities. They calculated that disaster prevention would cost approximately US$ 500 000 in 1987 and a total of US$2.5 million (US$2.50 per capita) was needed. This amount in cost alone is greatly exceeded by annual losses incurred through natural disasters (estimated as being US$8 per capita). Therefore with this minimal level of funding, disaster mitigation could be both affordable and cost-effective to La-Paz’s needs (Plessis-Fraissard, 1989)
In conclusion, the impact of volcanic eruptions will only be minimised when ‘decision-makers’ become more educated and aware that “there is no such thigh as a natural disaster; at most, there is a conjuncture of certain physical happenings and certain social happenings.”