Mismanagement meant there was no alert system in place, in fact, the volcano had not even been monitored in the months leading up to the eruption.
At least fifteen people have now been confirmed dead; more than 150 children have been separated from their families and a further 170 children are feared to be missing after the volcanic eruption of Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma last Saturday.
But could it all have been prevented? Or, put differently, why did Nyiragongo’s explosive eruption catch everyone by surprise?
One of several deadly, active and beautiful volcanoes in DRC, Nyiragongo is also a a tourist site popular among adventure-seeking locals who live in its shadow as well as foreign visitors. It isn't hard to see why.
Its lower forested slopes are home to a variety of animals, including chimpanzees and the three-horned chameleon. The breathtaking trek to its mighty summit is not just exhilarating and gratifying, but also ideal for memorable selfies behind its mosaic of molten red fire – the world's most active and largest lava lake.
The volcano is located north of Goma, a city of 2 million on the edge of Lake Kivu in DRC’s eastern North Kivu province, with its crater rising at 11,385 feet into the sky (more than four times taller than Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world). Nyiragongo looks like a parent brooding above her children playing in the sprawling city below – making its monitoring a top priority locally and internationally.
It can erupt at any time with devastating force, and it did so tragically and spectacularly on Saturday night while Goma’s at-risk population were in their homes and in their beds asleep. It turned the sky a fiery red, sending a massive plume of ash and red smoke thousands of feet into the air above as its fluid lava violently poured out of the earth and down its sides, destroying lives, homes, farms, roads, schools and livelihoods on its path, just a few minutes.
Unlike in 2002, the lava stopped just a few hundred meters from Goma's airport; sparing the city a dangerous fuel explosion. But the scale of its devastation is heart-breaking, adding to the ongoing human tragedy caused by two decades of wars over land and minerals.
At the time of publication, at least 15 deaths have been officially recorded. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said more than 150 children have been separated from their families and a further 170 children are feared to be missing.
According to Norwegian Refugee Council estimates, at least six-hundred homes around Goma have been destroyed, creating a refugee crisis. Many more are still displaced assessing whether it’s safe to return to the homes and farms for a recovery operation, or to rebuild. At least five schools have also been flattened. The lava had also cut off the road, making it difficult for goods to move around the city. Countless more have been hospitalised with burns and injuries.
The disaster has shocked people inside and outside Congo and brought home the incompetence of the Congolese authorities as well as the risk locals are still facing after the eruption.
In a statement, DRC’s Nobel peace laureate, Dr Denis Mukwege, called on locals “to remain united and to look to the future.” In the wake of the catastrophe, Congolese youth and organisations both at home and in the diaspora are using #SOSGoma to mobilise funds on GoFundMe in aid of Congolese women affected.
Videos of Saturday's eruption posted on social media showed Goma’s unsuspecting residents running for their lives, with their belongings, their children and even their goats, bringing up memories of the widespread devastation of the last eruption in 2002 when the lava flows was uniquely fast-moving.
The videos don’t show the precise moment of the eruption, suggesting the eruption caught them, as well as the Congolese authorities, which activated an evacuation plan after the eruption rather than as a precaution before the eruption, by surprise.
Yet last year, a group of volcanologists at the Luigi Vanvitelli University of Campania concluded that the lava lake in Nyiragongo had been hyperactive filling up at an alarming rate and raising the risk that the molten rock could burst through the crater walls once again. So, why then was there no automated warning system in place and what are the implications for life in Goma after the eruption?
This eruption was not an unexpected event. It was foreseeable. Needless to say, had the Congolese authorities acted and set up an alert system, locals could have been warned at least 16 hours before the volcano’s deadly eruption that killed at least 15 people.
Indeed, in this age of technology and instrumental monitoring, it seems troubling that there should be little or no functioning warning system that can measure even the smallest movements in the ground to predict Nyiragongo's eruption.
What is even more troubling is according to the head of the Congolese authorities’ monitoring agency, Goma Volcano Observatory, Kasereka Mahinda, volcanologists have not even been observing Nyiragongo’s activity in the seven months preceding its massive eruption on Saturday 22 May.
Why? The Congolese authorities couldn’t afford to pay their wages. Or just for their internet. Yet DRC president Felix Tshisekedi alone has 110 paid advisers, costing the state over $5 million a month. You do the math.
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