April 2015 – CONGO – A time bomb is ticking in eastern Congo. Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano, could erupt at any moment. The ever-present threat is forcing two uneasy neighbors – DRC and Rwanda – to cooperate with one another. The crater of Mount Nyiragongo contains the largest and most voluminous lava lake in the world, measuring a staggering ten million cubic meters. Celestin Kasereka, who works for the volcanological observatory in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, considers Mount Nyiragongo to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. “Nyiragongo is one of three volcanoes in which the lava lake is still active and it is situated right next to Goma with its one million inhabitants. We have to monitor this volcano,” he said.
Keeping a volcano under surveillance is a difficult task. There was a time when the European Union and Switzerland provided funding, but foreign aid for the observatory dried up in 2014. The government of North Kivu province lacks the means to make up for the shortfall and so there are no funds available for data gathering expeditions to the crater, seismographs, access to satellite data, or for public awareness campaigns. The observatory doesn’t even have enough resources to update the public warning signs which show the level of volcanic activity. Their purpose is to tell the population when to prepare for the evacuation of Goma, should an eruption be imminent. Kasereka finds this lack of precautionary measures worrying. “If we can’t monitor the volcano properly, we could be in for a nasty surprise.”
That was what happened when Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002. Several hundred people were killed by the molten lava. It also destroyed the runway at Goma airport as well as houses and business premises. Joseph Makundi, head of the government’s civil defense department, said that before the year 2002 nobody had stopped to think what might happen in Goma if the volcano were to erupt. “When it did happen, there was total chaos,” he said. “Nobody had lifted a finger, neither the government nor its partners. The present government wants to avoid repeating this mistake and has created a civil defense department.” This agency claims the government is now in a position to evacuate local residents in the vicinity of the volcano. They would be given shelter in 14 camps in the DRC and in neighboring Rwanda.
Mount Nyiragongo is also a permanent hazard for the residents of the town of Gienyi, just across the border in Rwanda. Molten lava from the volcano could spread there, too. There is also a subterranean magma flow running beneath the local hospital in Gisenyi. Once it has broken through the surface, magma is referred to as lava. It could come spewing up from the ground in Gisenyi. –DW