Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador

The popular tourist town of Baños is one of my favorite places to visit in Ecuador. Baños is famous for its waterfalls and mineral baths and marks the beginning of an amazingly picturesque drive along the Pastaza River to the Amazonian rainforest.

Unfortunately, the town might be in trouble. It is located on the northeasteastern slopes of Tungurahua, an active volcano located in south-central Ecuador. Tungurahua (Quichua for "throat of fire" and pronounced "toon goo raw wah") has been active since 1999, but an eruption late last week was one of its most destructive yet, killing at least three people, spewing millions of tons of volcanic ash into the sky, and wiping out crops, livestocks and several small villages on the volcano's western slopes with devastating pyroclastic flows. Geologists are warning that more eruptions are likely.

Ecuador is both blessed and cursed by its volcanoes. On one hand, the fertile volcanic soil of the Andes has nourished and sustained the local population since the time of the Incas. Volcanoes such as Tungurahua, Cotopaxi and Cayambe are spectacularly beautiful and figure prominently in the culture and folklore of the region. On the other hand, when these same volcanoes erupt, the results are usually devastating. This is especially significant in an impoverished nation such as Ecuador, where resources to help those affected by eruptions is limited and disruptions caused by volcanic activity can be particularly crippling to the fragile economy. Landslides and mudflows caused by this particular eruption damaged roads around the volcano and caused the Agoyan hydroelectric project on the Pastaza River outside of Baños to shut down, leaving much of the area without electricity. Hundreds of square miles of cropland have been covered in ash.

This time around, Tunugahua's fury was directed at its western slopes; towns and villages on its east side, including Baños, were spared from devastation. But more activity is probable, and Baños might not be as lucky next time.

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