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A city at risk
Roger Bracke

  What can be done to help a city threatened with total destruction from natural and man-made hazards?

 

This must be the most hazardous place in the world," explains Dario Tedesco, an Italian volcanologist, describing the city of Goma, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the forces of nature and man that threaten it.

The list of hazards is indeed impressive. Goma is located near one of the world's most lethal volcanoes, Mount Nyiragongo. There is a column of molten rock almost 3,000 metres high inside the volcano and a lake of lava sitting on top of it that threaten to bury the city. Earth tremors are a regular event that may destablize the methane and carbon dioxide gases at the bottom of nearby Lake Kivu causing massive explosions. For good measure, it is on the front line of a conflict involving armies and armed groups of at least six countries including its neighbour, Rwanda.

Unprepared

The people of Goma are well aware of the threats from natural and man-made hazards - eruptions of Nyiragongo have been well documented since the second half of the 19th century. In 1995 a permanent observatory, closely linked to Bukavu University, started to monitor Nyiragongo and a neighbouring volcano, Nyamuragira. Despite being severly hampered by a lack of financial and material resources, volcanologists from the observatory twice alerted the authorities of a possible eruption.

At one point, during a meeting with local authorities, volcanologists from the observatory asked for US$ 1,200 to set up a survey team. They had received worrying reports from people living near the volcano and wanted to visit the area to verify them. Authorities agred to pay US$ 300 initially, with the rest to be covered later. But it was too late. Upon leaving the meeting, the experts were informed that the eruption had started.

Initially, it appeared the city would be spared the worst effects of the lava flow, as it had so many times in the past. But it changed direction almost 12 hours after the eruption started, sending massive amounts of molten rock directly into the city centre.

The authorities quickly opened the border between the DRC and Rwanda, and organized temporary settlement for an estimated 300,000 people seeking refuge in Gisenyi, a city on the Rwandan side. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also managed to assist a significant number of people. Despite these efforts, it was obvious that both the government and NGOs underestimated the threat and lacked the advance planning necessary to deal swiftly with the crisis.

A Goma resident watches the lava flowing at the airport. The volcano destroyed much of the city including large sections of the airport.

 

More threats

Local experts worried about how long it took the lava in Goma to cool - a sign perhaps of new volcanic activity. And Nyiragongo is not the only problem. The observatory, together with the United Nations (UN), have issued warnings about its neighbour Nyamuragira. "One minute the reading said there was no activity at all, and the next showed dramatic activity," explained Dario Tedesco.
In addition to the eruption, Goma and Gisenyi have experienced constant tremors since January, some registering over five on the Richter scale. The tremors occur because the molten rock inside the volcanoes is trying to escape, building up pressure and causing the extension and widening of cracks (some several metres wide) in the slope of the volcano. Recently, long fissures were found under a local church. The fissures were emitting high levels of carbon dioxide, causing two women cleaning the church to faint.

The tremors have moved from Mount Nyiragongo, down towards Goma itself and on under Lake Kivu, creating yet another risk, related to the presence of layers of methane and carbon dioxide gases in the lake.

The danger is that the tremors will destablize the gas and force it to the surface. "So much gas, and so many people living alongside the lake," says Tedesco. "They could be all poisoned."

Weighing the risks

One volcanologist said he would advise against rebuilding Goma at its present location, due to the danger of further eruptions. Yet while the city still burned, people rushed back after the eruption in January once the lava flows slowed. They quickly got to work rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. The World Food Programme (WFP) explained this sudden return as a result of the tensions between communities in Rwanda and the DRC. "Issues related to relief, temporary shelter and resettlement proved to be difficult due to the tension and mistrust that is fuelled by the existing conflict between DRC and Rwanda. As a result, the displaced population decided to return to their place of origin from Rwanda despite the tremors and possible resumption of lava flow."

There are several other explanations for this rapid return, among them the need to ensure that homes and property were safe from looters and lava. "Other reasons", according to WFP, "included a deep felt reluctance from the Goma population towards having a refugee status, based on the recent history of refugee camps around the Goma area in the 1990s."

Yet none of this explains why people stay in a city daily threatened by the forces of nature and man. Federation delegates were surprised, when questioning local residents, to learn how informed they were about the risks from natural hazards. People know about the volcano, the cracks, the gases. They feel the shocks. They worry about their physical security. But Goma offers people economic opportunities in a region sorely lacking in them, and when weighing physical against economic security, the latter prevails. This population will not leave unless it is offered a serious economic alternative. And it remains difficult to see how authorities would convince them otherwise.

 

 

Prepared for the worst

"The residents of Goma must not be lulled into a false sense of security, despite assurances given regarding the harmlessness of gases and the relative stability of the overall situation," warned the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A sustained effort will be needed to mitigate the effects of future accidents. Long-term initiatives must be put in place to ensure that the population fully understands the various risks. These initiatives should include: sensitization to early warning announcements to evacuate; getting the correct information when needed; establishing systems to manage large crowds; facilitating the rapid evacuation of those who lack mobility; and the development of a joint emergency response plan with the authorities in Rwanda.

An inclusive preparedness effort, led by the authorities but fully involving the population, schools, churches, NGOs and UN agencies must be sustained far beyond the time spans that normally characterize cooperation agreements.
None of these proposed initiatives solve the problem. They merely reduce the consequences. They are, however, urgently needed to avoid a major catastrophe when the next disaster occurs.

Roger Bracke
Roger Bracke is the Federation's head of operations for Africa and the Middle East.

 

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