DRC: the week the Nyiragongo volcano woke up

The art of wielding oxymorons is well known to politicians. While the Democratic Republic of Congo fears the worst after the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano, its president Félix Tshisekedi is trying to plug the gaps: the situation is “serious” but “under control”, he commented on Sunday. However, Kinshasa did not stand out for its management of the crisis: poorly managed evacuations, false alarms and contradictions were on the menu this week. Meanwhile, several thousand residents of the city of Goma – in the east of the country – have been forced to evacuate at the risk of finding themselves mired in a humanitarian crisis.

May 22, 2021. Nobody waits for his awakening, but the Nyiragongo volcano does not need permission to erupt. Overlooking the city of Goma, this geological monster takes the population of course. Local radios and social networks are on fire. On the air, General Constant Ndima – in charge of the management of the province stammered: “We will give more explanations to the population to channel them towards the directions where they will be safe.” A few minutes later, the slogan became clear: Goma must be evacuated. The inhabitants do so. The roads towards the Masisi region are taken by storm. The vehicles are chock-full of personal belongings – as if some fear they will not return.

During the night, 3,000 people fled. The goal is simple: to shelter his family at all costs. In the neighboring country, in Rwanda, the authorities and NGOs are preparing to welcome the refugees, still in shock. The next day, the Congolese noticed that the lava flow descended from the flanks of the Nyiragongo volcano was immobilized in the suburbs of Goma, narrowly sparing the city. But on the outskirts, the damage is substantial. In the town of Buhene, between 900 and 2,500 homes were submerged under this tongue of rocky lava, according to the accounts of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Goma.

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Cascading earthquakes

The Nyiragongo volcano, seen from Lake Kivu, with the city of Goma at its feet, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), September 29, 2019

The Nyiragongo volcano, seen from Lake Kivu, with the city of Goma at its feet, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), September 29, 2019

afp.com/ALEXIS HUGUET

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In calm this time, the thousands of Congolese take to the road in the opposite direction. The rush is followed by questions, one in particular: why could this eruption not be anticipated? Due to a lack of funding to support the local Volcanology Observatory, the Nyiragongo volcano – considered the most dangerous in Africa – had not been monitored for seven months. This is what UN radio Okapi reports. If the inhabitants remain intrigued by this eruption, some go home with a lump in their stomachs. And for good reason: Monday morning, earthquakes are increasing.

From the government side, comments on the situation stand out for their rarity. Even the public radio and television station, RTNC, has been blamed for its rather distant coverage of the events. The Congolese chain did not shake up its program when the volcano erupted. Like nothing ever happened. Yet concerns around the volcano continue to grow. Tuesday morning, the inhabitants of Goma wake up mortified: two long cracks, a few tens of centimeters wide in places, appear at the foot of the Nyiragongo volcano. For their part, the earthquakes continue at a steady pace. More than 250 are recorded in three days in Goma, said the local volcanological observatory (OVG) on Wednesday.

The warning siren is racing

Eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano, near Goma, on May 22, 2021 in the DRC

Eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano, near Goma, on May 22, 2021 in the DRC

afp.com/Alex Miles

When the authorities break their silence, it is to allay the fears of the population. Referring to the local volcanology laboratory, they argue that the earthquakes “are not magmatic” and should decrease in intensity, ruling out the hypothesis of a new eruption. “The danger tends to recede,” assures a ministerial delegation that arrived Monday from Kinshasa. The executive does not give the order to evacuate. President Félix Tshisekedi prefers to play warlords. While the city of Goma is shaken every ten minutes, the head of state appoints police officers to replace the civilian mayors at the head of the main cities of the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, where many ‘countless armed groups.

Meanwhile, the UN is trying to shelter its troops. She decides, Wednesday, to relocate her staff present in Goma and reduce them to what is strictly necessary. In the capital of North Kivu, the damage intensified. The repeated earthquakes cause the collapse of new multi-storey buildings in the city and crack the walls of houses. It is in such a setting that we still play with the nerves of the Congolese. On the evening of Wednesday, another twist: the siren alert in Goma to warn of the risk of eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano was triggered following a “technical error”.

The risk of a limnic rash

Aerial view of the lava flow that engulfed the surroundings of Goma, on May 23, 2021 in the DRC

Aerial view of the lava flow that engulfed the surroundings of Goma, on May 23, 2021 in the DRC

afp.com/Justin SENT

But Thursday morning, the order given by the authorities to evacuate Goma is very real. The precautionary principle seems appropriate. “We cannot currently rule out an eruption on land or under the lake (Kivu) which could occur very soon, or even without any warning sign,” explains General Ndima, citing the names of ten districts of the city. Bis repetita. Tens of thousands of people collide on the roads, causing traffic jams for miles. As they leave their homes loaded with food, the situation on the ground is changing. The threat of a disaster scenario is agitated by the government: the risk of a limnic eruption.

What is it about ? This event occurs when the deep waters of very gas-rich lakes suddenly rise to the surface, releasing gigantic amounts of CO2 into the air and suffocating the surrounding populations. This disaster would claim thousands of victims in Goma and neighboring Rwanda. The scenario would have the consequences of suffocating all living beings around Lake Kivu on the Congolese and Rwandan side. This type of event, rare, already struck Cameroon in 1986, where the overturning of Lake Nyos killed nearly 1,800 inhabitants and decimated several thousand head of cattle.

Congolese power neglect criticized

Residents of Goma displaced by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano await food aid distribution, May 26, 2021 in DRC

Residents of Goma displaced by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano await food aid distribution, May 26, 2021 in DRC

afp.com/Guerchom Ndebo

Friday morning, the city of Goma – which has 600,000 inhabitants – is largely emptied of its inhabitants. Good news: the frequency of earthquakes has diminished. If the calm seems to have regained its rights, the crisis has shifted, while taking a humanitarian turn. Authorities report that nearly 400,000 people have left the provincial capital. As he sees thousands of people flocking to his soil, Rwandan President Paul Kagame declares himself “very concerned” by the situation of the Nyiragongo volcano in the DRC. The Head of State calls for “global and urgent support” in the face of the “humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, the Congolese government continues to chain the hiccups. After announcing the eruption of a small volcano near Nyiragong on Saturday, the executive retracted, believing that it was still a “false alarm.” Once again, this crisis seems to show the negligence of the Congolese power which is subject to many criticisms on the management of the sudden eruption. The evacuation ordered Thursday was carried out without any apparent organization or logistical support, despite the promises of the authorities. “It is difficult to have their exact number for organize an effective support, that’s why there was a time which passed “, defends the executive, this Sunday.

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Far from the government tribulations, more than a thousand refugees have however decided to return to Goma – a return however advised against by the Congolese president who recalled that an “underground lava flow can arise at any time anywhere in the city . ” Seismic aftershocks are still shaking the region on alert. A total of 92 other earthquakes have been recorded in the past 24 hours, a local government official said on Sunday in CNN. If the latest report shows 31 dead, the DRC is still holding its breath. Hoping that the volcano does the same.


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