IF the state of emergency on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae island was lifted tomorrow, Susan Ngwele would go back home.
“Yes I would, because most of my things are there, and I have animals and my property there, I have to go back,” she said.
“I can understand the fact that the [Manaro] volcano is also dangerous.
“But there are others who feel differently, others who feel that this is their home.”
Over the past year the people of Ambae island have been forced to leave not once, but twice, after the Manaro volcano rumbled to life and coated much of the surrounding area in a thick blanket of ash that choked the air, contaminated water supplies, and even caused roofs to collapse.
The Government ordered the entire population of around 11,000 people to move to neighbouring islands after declaring a state of emergency in September 2017.
They were allowed to return about a month later — and many did, only for the island to be evacuated again in July 2018 after an increase in volcanic activity.
While the move seems more permanent this time, some Ambaeans are already signalling their intention to return — and they’re not alone in their desire to move back home after a volcanic eruption.
Many communities around the world contend with the dangers of nearby volcanoes and some even refuse to move when there’s every indication an eruption may be imminent.
So why would you live in the shadow of an active volcano?
Dr Illan Kelman at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London has specifically looked at that very question.
“Ultimately people live near volcanoes because it’s home,” he said.
“When you are near a volcano, as long as it’s not causing immediate direct lethal threats, often the people know how to deal with that and they’re quite happy dealing with it because there are so many advantages to it.”
Those advantages can include highly fertile land that can yield very successful crops, as well as access to good water supplies.
Another drawcard is the money that can be made from volcano tourism.
“There can also be wonderful hikes, gorgeous scenery, and absolutely spectacular coastlines and mountains in volcanic areas, which draw people to it and lead to income,” Dr Kelman told the ABC.
In Japan, which sits on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur, entire resort towns have been built around traditional baths known as ‘onsen’ which are heated by the geothermal springs commonly found in areas of high volcanic activity.
Visitors to some onsen in Kagoshima can even bathe while watching the constantly-smoking crater of the country’s most active volcano, Mount Sakurajima.
The geothermal activity can also be a reliable source of energy.
“A good proportion of Iceland is reliant on geothermal heat, as well as parts of New Zealand,” Dr Kelman said.
But sometimes, people who live near volcanoes simply don’t have anywhere else to go.
“Land on volcanoes tends to be the cheapest land around, so sometimes people can’t afford to move,” Dr Amy Donovan, a lecturer in Geography and Environmental Hazards at King’s College London, told the ABC.
“You can kind of reframe it and say ‘well there’s a risk from the volcano, but there’s also the risk of not being able to make a living, and the risk of losing the place where you belong, and losing a part of your identity in a way’.
“And some people view that risk as really, really threatening.”
When the Soufriere Hills volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat erupted in the 1990s, many families moved to nearby Antigua or to the United Kingdom.
But Dr Kelman said some decided to move back — despite the ongoing volcanic activity — because the families in Antigua were worried about the high levels of crime and those who moved to England were worried about what they considered the relatively poor access to education.
“So consequently, many families in Antigua and England decided that it would be safer on a volcanic island,” she said.
“They would have a better life on a volcanic island than they did, compared to the levels of education or levels of crime that they were experiencing elsewhere.”
In Vanuatu, much of the population have moved to the nearby islands of Maewo and Santo — but they, too, are reporting problems.
Susan Ngwele is living on Santo and said many were finding it hard to earn an income or access food, instead relying on friends and relatives.
“Sometimes we are embarrassed because we cause them so much burden just to help us out,” she said.
Like communities all over the world, it seems some people from Ambae still feel they’d be happier at home — even if that home is an active volcano.