Thursday, May 14, 2009

a few explanations

Goma is the type of place where you get used to talking about erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, and escalating war. You get so used to these topics that your conversations are peppered with references to them, assuming everyone lives in the same reality.

So it occurs to me that perhaps my earlier entry about these topics might have been a bit shocking to some of my readers. WHAT!! Volcano erupting??? Lake exploding????

I had a similar experience before I moved here myself. My husband was offered a job here so I innocently plugged "goma" into the search engines. It returned results entitled "living in the shadow of disaster" and "the doomed city". And yet we moved here anyway. Go figure.

There are a lot of very serious realities in Goma, but there is also a lot of hype out there. Truly when you read about Goma you imagine it being this place that is completely off the scale. It is easy to read about erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, and escalating war, and to imagine that the place must be very strange indeed. Yet what is striking about Goma, besides the fact that it is a disaster in many ways, is the way that life continues as normal.

A kind reader of my earlier entry on the volcano wrote...
"I discovered this news just by reading your blogpost. How are the people in Goma dealing with it these days?"
The local vulcanologist began predicting the eruption of the smaller volcano and talking about the possibility that Nyiragongo will also erupt a few months ago. His quotes are fairly strong, and likely to evoke concern among whoever hears them. These quotes, began appearing in radio broadcast and local news a while ago, although they have only appeared internationally more recently. So the population has been talking about the possibility of an eruption for some time. There is concern, and as Goma hit a hot stretch of weather a couple weeks ago, many people began saying that this was because the volcano was going to erupt. However, again, this is Goma. People fled Goma when it was covered with lava in 2002 only to return while the lava was still steaming. People woke up and went to the markets while rebel soldiers were standing poised to take over the city. Life goes on. You can read BBC's coverage of this issue here . If you read carefully you will notice that they confirm that it is not Nyiragongo but the other volcano which is likely to erupt at this time. This is not likely to affect Goma directly.

Another reader wrote...

"Do you and the Shona craftspeople have a plan to evacuate? If the volcano does erupt, you have time to flee, right? (I mean, lava moves slowly...)"
First of all, we continue to be assured by the international experts that Nyiragongo is not likely to erupt right now. We don't have a plan to evacuate, but we live close to the border and would probably be able to get there quickly. And we would probably be allowed across. However when Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and Congolese fled to the Rwandan border, Rwanda closed its border for hours, allowing no refugees to cross. I hope that the international community will put heavy pressure on Rwanda to ensure that they don't close their border again in case of disaster.

But what about the methane gas in the lake? How will you know if you have to flee from it? Does it smell? Is it visible? There was a lake in Cameroon with a similar situation. The lake overturned, released the gas, and the villagers living on the shores died in their sleep. THE LAKE IN CONGO IS MUCH MORE STABLE AND MUCH LESS LIKELY TO RELEASE THE GAS. However, again, it would be nice if the world were thinking and acting in advance. In similar lakes in Cameroon they have installed pipes to take the gas out of the lake. They could do something like that here, although they would need many more pipes. The world could push something like this and work to make the lake safe. This is not happening because the methane gas in Lake Kivu is extremely valuable. Rwanda currently extracts small quantities to power their brewery and is in the midst of developing a much larger extraction project. However the pace is very slow because the Rwandan government and the companies involved will not take out the gas until they are set up to use it for electricity. A fine idea, except that it means millions of people will live in the vicinity of a potentially lethal lake for decades to come, while they figure out how to make money off of it. You can read more abou the degassing of the lakes in Cameroon here.

Again, the point is this: A disaster is not likely to occur tomorrow in Goma. However there is ample evidence of the very serious, long-term dangers in this city. They get no attention until the disaster is imminent. Perhaps this is why the local vulcanologist is making such strong statements. Perhaps it is the only way to get people's attention. To really address these dangers would take a concerted international effort prior to the disaster. As in now. I am sure that after something happens relief money will come flowing in. But is this really the way to run our world? If the world wanted to, it could do something now. If there was money in it, the world would do something now.

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