Nyiragongo is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. With an extensive lava lake and eruptions producing viscous lava flows and ash fall out, the volcano is a significant hazard to surrounding populations. This volcano has a history of damaging land be it agricultural or settlement; the Goma disaster in January 2002 destroyed much of the Goma city’s commercial centre and forced almost 200,000 people to flee and left most of the residents with nothing to return to. Nyiragongo partially overlaps with two older volcanoes, Baruta and Shaheru, on the north and south, giving it two extra peaks when overlooking the structure. There are numerous other parasitic cones etched over Nyiragongo, buried and covered by past volcanic lava flows, which have solidified to create an eerie black hillside.
Over the weekend, Goma, still recovering from 2002, launched a mass evacuation for its population of about two million. The eruption was likely caused by a seismic disruption below the volcano, suggesting a slip fracture of the bedrock underneath. However, since the World Bank cut funding amid allegations of corruption for the local observatory, only limited reports picked up on this seismic activity on the 10th of May, giving only little warning before the disaster would strike.
Initially, the lava flowed east towards Rwanda but later in the night, new fractures opened in the volcano pushing lava, ash particles and soot south towards Goma. INSO (the International NGO Safety Organisation), which coordinates NGO activity, population safety and resource distribution across Goma, noted that the lava had cut off the main road that runs north from Goma on Sunday while people were still fleeing the city. Over the weekend, 22 deaths have been confirmed, but fortunately the lava stopped short of the city’s built-up area, avoiding the level of death and destruction witnessed in 2002. Many residents are now searching for missing loved ones as the city, and the region, continues to experience earthquakes and tremors, exacerbating infrastructure damages and disrupting travel. With limited support and aid reaching the area, it is feared that more deaths will follow from malnutrition and building collapses . There is concern that more than 170 children aremissing and 150 others have been separated from their families according to UNICEF, adding that aid centres would be set up across the region to help unaccompanied minors and those left without homes. However, reconstruction and recovery efforts are likely to take months as the effects of the eruption of 2002 have still left many in poor, unhygienic and misshaped settlements with little income.
Goma is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission. Much of the surrounding eastern Congo is under threat from myriad armed groups vying for control of the region’s mineral resources. This puts Goma in urgent need of international aid, NGO support and humanitarian activity to ensure the population does not experience any more loss of life.
This story is constantly developing as more and more return to Goma from neighbouring Rwanda. The region’s political instability and bouts of conflict make the situation even worse.
Historically, eruptions at Nyiragongo generally occur when the pressure of accumulating magma or an earthquake forces open fissures in the sides of the mountain, leading to the catastrophic draining of the lava lake or the eruption of magma stored deeper down. With magma rich in carbon dioxide and highly gaseous in density, it quietly exudes to the surface via aquifers above deep-seated bodies of degassing magma. Being denser than air, the gas gathers unnoticed in low-lying areas. Locals refer to it as mazuku, or “evil wind.” The combination of political instability, weakness in the volcano from previous eruptions, lack of observation and poor recovery networks highlights the urgent need for aid.
Despite World Bank budget cuts limiting investment in technology and equipment, this past weekend is the first time that an expansive suite of monitoring equipment—as opposed to the small assortment of seismic stations in the past—has been up and running during a Nyiragongo eruption. on the volcanic site as the powerful organisation forced the money into other areas of government and infrastructure. Yet it is entirely certain that Nyiragongo will erupt again, and constant monitoring of the site is an urgent necessity. If the area’s Lake Kivu is disturbed by major underwater volcanic activity, significant quantities of carbon dioxide may flood its shores. And if the magma moves elsewhere below ground, a new volcanic vent could open up in the middle of the city. The hazards are plentiful and omnipresent around this hyperactive volcano. Goma, along with Gisenyi are in near-perpetual peril of further volcanic eruptions. This disaster has hopefully brought into light the need for renewed mitigation efforts, city-planning, structure and scientific work in Goma.