A dozen tribesmen with picks and shovels climbed the Mount Pinatubo volcano last week on the dangerous mission to drain the crater lake that threatens their villages with massive floods if the volcano explodes, as it is threatening to do.

Their aim is to carve a notch in the volcano?s crater, to slowly release water from the rising lake, by chopping 16 feet off the lowest point of Pinatubo?s summit. When the notch is completed, geologists predict another 16 feet of already-weakened wall will give way, draining about 530 million cubic feet of water in five hours. The lake contains an estimated 7 trillion cubic feet of water.

The water level in the lake has been rising rapidly during the rainy season, and is now within 16 feet of the crater?s rim. The weight of the water could shatter the upper walls of the 4,740-foot volcano, endangering the lives of 40,000 villagers nearby.

But the crumbly crater, composed of loosely packed volcanic rock and ash, also could give way under the digging. Rogelio Yap, the mayor of the nearby town of Botolan, said he spoke with the diggers by radio and they reported that heavy rain kept them from starting work immediately.

Raymundo Punongbayan, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, says he believes this is the first attempt to drain water from a volcano lake in this way. Water has been drained from the Kelud volcanic lake in Indonesia by boring through the crater wall, but that kind of procedure would be too expensive to use in this situation.

Recent campers who were near Pinatubo?s summit say they heard loud splashes, as chunks of the crater broke off and fell into the lake?s 1,000-foot depths. Pinatubo, about 50 miles north of Manila, has become a popular spot for climbers, with about 3,500 people scaling it every year between October and April. Tour agency officials say the route they use is safely away from areas where drainage would flow.

Willy Bulanhigan, 45, who is supervising the digging, admits it?s dangerous but says, ?We are looking at the welfare of our community.? The diggers are paid $3.50 a day and were given picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, along with a week?s worth of food.

Government geologists who are supervising the work have ruled out the use of explosives or heavy equipment for fear it could tear away at the crater. The crew will start by digging an outline of the notch. As many as 200 workers may be needed to complete the operation over the next few weeks.

About 200 villagers in the path of the water have moved to safer areas. Emergency officials plan to warn other residents when workers are ready to start work on the crater.

In 1991, an eruption of Pinatubo killed 800 people and spewed billions of tons of debris, leaving a hole with an area of about 2 square miles in its summit. The opening has acted as a collecting basin for rainwater ever since.

In June 1998, a similar crater lake collapsed in Nicaragua?s Casita volcano under pressure from Hurricane Mitch. More than 2,000 people were killed.

Pinatubo is one of the Philippines? 22 active volcanos. Scientists believe the volcano comes to life only every few centuries. Before 1991, the volcano hadn?t exploded for 460 to 500 years.

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