Science News

Eastern Congo volcanoes show eruption warning signs

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Two volcanoes may erupt in heavily populated eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of fighting have already forced 1 million people from their homes, scientists and aid agencies said.

A general view of the refugee camp at Kibati at the foot of Nyiragongo volcano in eastern Congo, November 14, 2008. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Scientists in Goma, capital of the border province of North Kivu, have in recent weeks registered high levels of seismic activity, considered an early warning sign of an impending eruption, around the Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira volcanoes.

“There is heavy activity around Nyiragongo, but it’s more centered on Nyamulagira, around 13 km (8 miles) away,” Dieudonne Wafula, lead scientist at the Volcanological Observatory of Goma, told Reuters on Monday.

Nyiragongo, which lies just outside Goma, erupted in 2002, sending a river of lava through the city, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of people.

“Red Cross volunteers are on alert to help the population, which still has memories of the (2002) eruption ... which displaced around 400,000 people,” Zebe Kitabingo, head of the local chapter of the Congolese Red Cross, said in a statement.

Eastern Congo is still struggling to end more than a decade of lingering fighting between government soldiers, local Mai Mai militias, and rebels that has rumbled on despite the official end of a 1998-2003 war.

The conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe it sparked have killed about 5.4 million people over the past decade.

The fighting has displaced around 1 million people in North Kivu since late 2006, and tens of thousands of internal refugees have flocked to the relative security of camps on the outskirts of Goma, a city home to more than 600,000 people.

Despite the city’s close proximity to the two volcanoes, Wafula said Goma itself did not appear to be at risk, as the level of lava in the Nyiragongo crater is relatively low.

“It’s less worrying. The higher the lava level, the higher the probability of a serious eruption. The risk is greater for the villages west of the Nyamulagira volcano,” he said.

Aside from the immediate threat of lava flows, Wafula warned against the dangers of airborne ash, which can contaminate drinking water, poison livestock, and disrupt air traffic.

Reporting by Joe Bavier; Additional reporting by Kenny Katombe in Goma; Editing by Daniel Magnowski