Goma / DPA
In the crater of the Nyiragongo volcano in eastern Congo, the world’s largest lava lake cooks restlessly above the city of Goma, occasionally emitting 1,100-degree-Celsius bursts in what experts warn can precede a cataclysmic eruption.
Hundreds of thousands of people who built homes in the immediate path of any new lava flow are acutely endangered. Yet this is where they live and where they have come back to live after every deadly spillover in the past.
“It is certain that the next eruption will cause major damage,” says Italian volcanologist Dario Tedesco, who has spent years researching Nyiragongo.
“It would probably only take a few minutes for the lava from the next one to reach Goma,” he adds, with a nod to the steady growth of the city into the danger zone.
Not only do wood and corrugated metal houses now cluster at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo, but the city’s fast evacuation is hampered by Lake Kivu to the south and the border with Rwanda to the east, leaving just a dirt track heading westward to safety.
But the inhabitants of Goma are not easily rattled by the thought of disaster, having seen rebel forces take their city twice in recent years, while cholera epidemics are a constant threat.
When the volcano last erupted in January 2002, some 400,000 people managed to flee mainly to Rwanda before the lava rolled over a third of the city, killing more than 100 people and leaving some 120,000 homeless. Since then the population has grown to about 1.2 million today.
Worse still, the next eruption could happen right in the middle of Goma, says Tedesco, since the volcano’s substructure of underground channels filled with magma reaches far below the city. And when the lava breaks the surface, its unique chemical composition makes it even more life-threatening.
“The Nyiragongo lava is very liquid because of its low silicate content and so flows extremely quickly,” says Nicole Bobrowski, a vulcanologist at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany who has also been studying Nyiragongo for several years.
During an eruption in 1977, researchers measured the fastest ever known lava flow of 60 kilometers per hour, and the mass still moved at 20 km/h in the plain around Goma, engulfing everything in its path.
“The volcano completely destroyed our house,” recalls Kambale Mwanamolo, a father of two. “All of our possessions were destroyed instantly.”
When the eruption began, the 52-year-old and his family fled across the border to Rwanda at the last moment. But like most of those who fled, they later returned to Goma and started their lives again as best they could.
Black lava rock became an integral part of Goma’s landscape, with lava debris still littering street corners and some homeowners using it to wall their properties. Fifteen years later part of the local airport’s runway remains buried under the hardened lava.
“You could not get rid of the cooled lava, there was much too much. That’s why we built our new house on top of it,” says Mwanamolo. The whole city was elevated as a result of the eruption, while its demographic expansion pushes it ever closer to the volcano’s slopes.
Unlike Mount Vesuvius, which towers over the Italian city of Naples, Nyiragongo is only patchily monitored due to a lack of finances and competence.
The volcano observatory in Goma has been funded by the European Union and the World Bank, but is lacking in many areas, according to Bobrowski. “There isn’t even a webcam constantly watching the lava lake,” he says.
Researchers cannot say when the Nyiragongo will blow again and how bad it will be.
The best indication of an impending eruption is earthquakes along the Great Rift Valley, the continuous 6,000-kilometre geographic trench that runs from Lebanon to Mozambique, and includes the volcano. In that case, things can move very quickly. “If we can get even 24 hours to warn the population it would be a good result,” says Tedesco.
While the government claims to have an evacuation plan, the authorities in eastern Congo seem overstretched by daily duties at the best of times.
But in the bleakest outcome of all, an eruption of the volcano would trigger the leak of vast amounts of methane and carbon dioxide trapped beneath the 400-metre-deep bed of the nearby Lake Kivu.
If these are released, up to 2 million people in the area could be suffocated, according to some experts, although vulcanologist Tedesco does not subscribe to this doomsday scenario.