Monday, May 11, 2009

Goma, the volcano, and impending doom

Goma is at the base of Mt Nyiragongo, an active volcano which erupted in 2002 and covered 1/3 of the town with lava.

When traveling from Rwanda to Goma, you find yourself happily traveling along scenic paved roads, which wind down the mountains and around the lake, until you arrive at the border of Goma. As you leave Rwanda you will wait fill out the border crossing card on the Rwandan side, and wait in an orderly line. Then you will walk about 500 steps to the Congo side of the border, and in an instant everything changes. That form you filled out in Rwanda...there is none on this side. That orderly line...there certainly is none. However if you are a lucky foreigner you will not have to shove your way through the masses of people. You will be escorted inside the office directly. Where you will buy a visa for 35 dollars, or show your 6 month visa, if you have one. And then you will wonder exactly where you have landed. Because those nice roads are lost forever. And especially if you are traveling in a vehicle you may come to believe that that not a single road exists in Goma at all. And perhaps this is true. Because in all reality, a majority of the time that you are in Goma you are driving not on a road but on lava. There are random attempts to fix the roads or recreate them. These seem to involve either spilling rocks or sand over the lava, or in the sections that are paved the approach seems to be to dig up the pavement. Leaving large gaping holes. I assume that the theory is then to refill those sections of pavement, unfortunately the mysterious funding for road repairs which arrived and inspired this effort of road digging up, always seems to dry up directly after the road has been dug up and directly before any single hole has been refilled.

So here we drive on lava, walk on lava, and for a vast majority of the people of Goma, live on lava. We separate our houses with walls built of lava, and I was told that you can even buy a nativity set sculpted out of lava.

And when you look up during the day you can see the volcano smoking away.

And when you look up at night you can see the warm red glow of the volcano.

And sometimes one feels compelled to ask oneself what kind of people live this close to an active volcano. People of immense faith perhaps? Or people who have greater problems to worry about than natural disasters.

Recently I have received a number of emails from SHONA friends asking about our well-being, in the face of reports of an imminent volcanic eruption near Goma. I continue to be amazed by the concern and generosity of spirit of people who live so far away. I am sure this is not exactly making the nightly news in the US, but so many of you have put in the extra effort to follow events in Congo. Thank you all for your concern.

There are two active volcanoes near Goma. One is Mt. Nyiragongo which erupted in 2002 and had a very serious impact on Goma. The other is Mt. Nyamulagira which erupts every few years. This volcano tend to fill up and erupt more regularly in fairly small quantities and over a sparsely populated area. It does not usually directly affect Goma. There are a small number of people who live very close to that volcano and who are directly threatened by any eruption.

There are also two sets of experts in the region. One is the Congolese vulcanologist, Wafula, who correctly predicted the last eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo and the resulting destruction of Goma. There are also international vulcanologist here, to monitor and advise.

Both sets of vulcanologist agree that the smaller Mt. Nyamulagira is due to erupt anytime. Although this is a concern for the people in the direct vicinity of the volcano it is not likely to affect Goma directly. However Wafula is also reporting that raised temperatures and increased volcanic dust around Mt. Nyiragongo could mean that it is going to erupt as well. This would be of serious concern to the people of Goma. Another eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo could put in danger the hundreds of thousands of people living in Goma, many of them refugees. It is also a concern because there is a high quantity of methane gas trapped in the bottom of Lake Kivu. If this gas were released it could kill everyone in the lake basin. While this is not very likely, any significant shaking of the earth or change in temperature of the lake (for example because of lava flowing into it) could cause this disastrous release. However it is important to keep this in perspective remembering that the large eruption in 2002 did not cause any gas release.

While the local vulcanologist is suggesting that Nyiragongo might erupt again soon, the international vulcanolgists have been holding meetings with international NGOs stating that there are no signs of increased activity at Nyiragongo and that while the smaller volcano will erupt, it is unlikely that Nyiragongo will erupt again at this time.

So while the people of Goma would surely appreciate remaining in your prayers, hopefully the eruption of the closer, larger volcano is not imminent.

The reality is that Goma is a chaotic city, overflowing with refugees and other people who have already suffered more than their share of disasters. Goma is also a city at the base of an active volcano which will erupt again, and at the edge of a lake that has disastrous amounts of methane gas in it. Some people have called it a doomed city. It is quite possible that the local vulcanologist is using the imminent eruption of the one volcano, to draw attention to the very real long-term dangers that exist.

This is not a sustainable city. Sooner or later disaster will strike. The population lives from one day to the next. And the government appears to do the same. In 2002 the local vulcanologist predicted the eruption of Nyiragongo well in advance. The town could have been evacuated and security precautions could have been put into place. Nothing was done. Whether or not Nyiragongo erupts this week, something should be done NOW to address the real dangers posed by having a city of 700,000 people at the base of a active volcano and an exploding lake. Unfortunately, if Nyiragongo doesn't erupt this week, the news coverage of impending doom will quickly disappear. The nature of disasters is that they receive attention after the fact. And everyone acts surprised. But we know better here.


Lynn said...

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...) 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?
"Goma is not a sustainable city." Yet, you all press on...
Thinking of you.

Ed said...

Mt Nyiragongo has the fastest flowing lava in the world (about sixty miles per hour) so escaping would be difficult.

K-squared said...

i watched a documentary on this recently, and it's cool to see how it actually links to people around the world, even if we dont know it

Lots in Costa Rica said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I think I will leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.