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Environment

Rising magma and empty coffers raise alarm for Congo's volcano-watchers

4 minute read

MT. NYIRAGONGO, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 10 (Reuters) - Standing on the serrated edge of Mount Nyiragongo's crater in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, volcanologist Honore Ciraba peered into the lens of a device measuring changes in the size of the volcano's rim.

The readings, along with earthquake, temperature and gas data, are crucial to the region's early warning system for the nearby city of Goma, to avoid a repeat of the 2002 eruption when 250 people died and 120,000 were made homeless.

Increased volcanic activity and other indicators have experts fretting that another eruption could be on the way.

But after the World Bank cut funding amid embezzlement allegations, Ciraba and colleagues at the Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG) are struggling to make even basic checks.

"If we don't do regular measurements and announce the eruption a few days beforehand, the population won't have time to evacuate and people will die," said Ciraba, 65, who's devoted his life to trudging up the 3,470m cone to study its activity.

With the coffers empty, Ciraba's team has been unable to pay for an internet connection to run remote sensors and fuel to transport researchers to the volcano.

They have to manually download data on memory cards during the handful of occasions they visit the volcano every year, OVG staff said.

The World Bank declined to renew a four-year, $2 million funding programme.

The OVG "lacked experience, and there were weaknesses in implementing such a grant," the World Bank said in a statement. It added that it could not corroborate allegations of graft.

The World Bank said it upheld high anti-corruption standards and strict guidelines for procurement and financial management.

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A lava lake and a mini cone inside the Mount Nyiragongo volcano crater spew gas into the sky inside the Virunga National Park, near Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo February 12, 2021. Picture taken February 12, 2021. REUTERS/Hereward Holland

In April, 2020, Congo government's Office for Good Governance and the Fight against Corruption (OBLC), a local ombudsman, opened an investigation, seizing bank records and invoices from OVG.

Despite indications of graft, authorities suspended the investigation two weeks later and it remains incomplete, sources at OBLC told Reuters. OVG's management and the government of Congo did not respond to requests for comment.

WORRYING SIGNS

Volcano watchers worry that volcanic activity observed in the last five years mirrors that in the years preceding the 1977 and 2002 eruptions.

Since 2002, the volcano's crater has refilled with magma, raising the crater floor and the spectre of an even bigger disaster if an earthquake were to cause a fracture in the flank of the volcano, said Dario Tedesco, an Italian volcanologist based in Goma.

Forecasting showed a potential eruption could take place, if volcanic activity remains the same, between 2024 and 2027, according to research published last August by Geophysical Research Letters, a journal.

The expansion of the city towards the volcano - its population is estimated to have tripled to around 1.5 million in the last 20 years - could make an eruption more deadly.

"There's no doubt Nyiragongo is still the most dangerous volcano in the world," said Tedesco, who co-authored the study.

As Ciraba took the readings, the world's largest continually active lava lake spat and frothed, lighting up the dusky sky with a tangerine glow and coughing up a slow series of staccato blasts.

Unseen below the clouds lay the city of Goma, which was partially buried 19 years ago when an eruption sent down rivers of lava.

"The OVG has a great responsibility for the lives of the people down there," Ciraba said.

Reporting by Hereward Holland; Editing by Bate Felix and Mike Collett-White

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