August 25, 2009 / 4:48 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-Thousands at risk from DR Congo lake gas

* Scientists discover new pocket of gas in lake

* Eruption could be imminent, could kill thousands



By Joe Bavier

KINSHASA, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Gases trapped below the surface of a lake in eastern Congo could explode any day, threatening the lives of tens of thousands of locals, the country’s environment minister warned on Tuesday.

Huge amounts of carbon dioxide and highly combustible methane gas are dissolved in Lake Kivu, which straddles the heavily populated border between Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Rwanda.

Though scientists believe the overall danger across the lake as a whole is minimal, researchers have discovered a pocket of gas in the relatively shallow Gulf of Kabuno, in the lake’s northwest corner.

"The risk of explosion is imminent," Jose Endundo said.

"It’s like a bottle of Coca-Cola or champagne. If there is too much pressure inside the bottle, it will explode. It’s the same phenomenon," Endundo told Reuters in an interview.

An estimated three cubic kilometres of carbon dioxide lie just 12 metres below the surface of the gulf, which sits atop a tectonic faultline.

Scientists fear a major earthquake or large lava flow from a nearby volcano could provoke a giant release of gas, creating a deadly cloud.

An eruption of some 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 that had been trapped under Lake Nyos in isolated northwestern Cameroon killed around 1,700 people in 1986.

"The risk is that this gas escapes and asphyxiates thousands of people. There is an urgent need to evacuate gas from the Gulf of Kabuno, which now holds 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide that Lake Nyos contained," Endundo said

Several large villages lie on the shores of the Gulf of Kabuno, and the city of Goma, with a population of around 1 million, is located around 20 km (13 miles) to the east.

"Anything is possible, if this cloud is pushed by the wind," said Michel Halbwachs, a volcanologist and Lake Kivu expert with France’s Universite de Savoie.

"We could have a very light scenario or we could have a very heavy scenario ... Entire neighbourhoods could be hit," he said of a region whose inhabitants are already suffering mass killings and rapes as Congolese soldiers battle rebels.

The World Bank has set aside $3 million to fund a project to remove gas from the gulf, Endundo said, adding that Congo was looking for other sources of finance to complete the project.

Proponents of commercial extraction projects say pumping out Lake Kivu’s carbon dioxide along with its potentially lucrative methane reserves could help alleviate the danger of a gas eruption on the lake as a whole.

Earlier this year, Congo and Rwanda agreed to a joint project to produce 200 megawatts of power from Lake Kivu’s methane reserves.

Rwanda has already begun extracting small amounts of methane using a demonstration rig on its side of the lake. It was producing two megawatts of power by the end of 2008. (Editing by Mark John and Robin Pomeroy)





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