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