Radix - Nyiragongo volcanic eruption - Congo


bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Also go to the page on Violent Conflict and Disasters

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Conflict in Congo has killed 4.7m, charity says. James Astill in Bukavu and Isabelle Chevallot, Tuesday April 8, 2003, The Guardian 

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) AlertNet: Recovering Goma still faces economic battle by Mark Jones

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) ReliefWeb: Central Africa: Five million dead from violent conflict in last decade

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Poverty in the midst of Wealth: The Democratic Republic of Congo. Oxfam Policy Papers - Oxfam Briefing Paper - January 2002 http://www.oxfam.org.uk/policy/papers/drc/povertywealth.htm

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Second volcano menaces Congolese town of Goma http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/UNID/B0BE7A7C99F35665C1256B6D003D27DE?OpenDocument

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Congo volcano casts a shadow over relief by Nick Cater, AlertNet 08 Feb 2002

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Gone with the wind by Carmen Solana The Guardian Thursday January 31, 2002

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) ReliefWeb: Eastern Congo: Beyond the volcano, a slow motion holocaust http://www.reliefweb.int/w/Rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/099ea5d96ea68e56c1256b4f004dfb4b?OpenDocument

bluesquiggle.gif (968 bytes) Goma, Congo: City Air Makes Men Free?

Go here for to download a slightly revised version (78kb)

Go here to download a short version (38kb)

22 January 2002

Ben Wisner


A series of questions come to mind in the face of the damage to a large town in a volcanic eruption.

Principle question is suggested by the irony of Goethe's aphorism. Does "city air make men free" in the case of Goma? Why is Goma where it is? What was its function in the days of Belgian colonialism? Under Mobutu? In 1994? Now? Is it a life boat for people in a sea of economic and security threats, or is it a death trap?

Another question concerns "disaster diplomacy" in the broad sense. This is a very unstable region where there are several armed groups dating from the terrible events in Rwanda in 1994 and also the civil war within Mobutu's Zaire and, after his downfall, within the new Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter war became internationalized as a number of African countries became involved on one side or the other. There is presently a cease fire supervised by the United Nations. Will armed groups take advantage of this situation to do more than loot, possibly beginning hostilities again? Will people displaced by the volcano be in danger from armed gangs?

To what extent has this long history of war and instability undermined the capacity of local government, at municipal level, such as in the sizeable town (small city) of Goma (pop. 500,000)? Would more municipal capacity have provided clearer, more timely, and credible warnings and instructions?

A third cluster of questions surround this issue of risk communication. Why have the population movements sea-sawed back and forth between Rwanda and Congo? Why don't displaced persons want to stay in the camps that have been established for them farther from the volcano, deeper in Rwanda (an additional 20 km)? What efforts at risk communication have been undertaken?

The Situation   

DAMAGE AND ACCESS: The city of Goma in eastern Congo has been cut into three sections by lava flowing from the Nyiragongo volcano. 30-40 per cent of Goma has been destroyed and 80% damaged. The airport is inoperable (runway damage), although it is possibly useable by small aircraft).
(IFRC http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/vID/F86B851F9D19A1F649256B480027BB58?OpenDocument)

The main route to the North has been blocked by lava.

DEATHS AND INJURIES: 350,000-500,000 people are affected, 245 reported dead. (USAID and other sources http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/0cf8d4981731923b85256b48007e6ce2?OpenDocument)

347 people have been hospitalized in the Rwandan city of Gisenyi
(AFP http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/224a3f7b7103ab07c1256b48005b3f44?OpenDocument)

SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC SITUATION: There has been much looting. There are also scattered reports of price rises for staples (salt, sugar) in surrounding areas. There are no estimates yet of economic loss or total cost of recovery.


    explosion of gasoline tanks at station where looters were trying to siphon gasoline, ignited by hot lava nearby (approximately 50-100 dead)
    possible contamination of lake Kivu water by lava flow: "Aid workers are still waiting anxiously for the results of samples taken from Lake Kivu, from which the lakeside city of some 400,000 residents draws most of its water. Although all of Goma's water intake plants were untouched by the lava, water/sanitation experts are fearful that one stream of lava that flowed into the lake may have introduced chemicals that the filtration plants were not designed to handle. Appearing on the surface to have cooled and hardened into rock, steam from the point at which the lava flow entered the lake indicated that molten lava was still tunneling under this hardened crust and into the water." (UN OCHA http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/d85051d9b8aa821485256b4800715d2a?OpenDocument)
    possible sulphurous gas emissions
    ash fall into lake Kivu
    health problems: "MSF teams are monitoring for cholera, measles and meningitis. These are the diseases that are ongoing in the war-ravaged country. In addition, with the degree of volcanic ash and burning buildings that have accompanied the lava flow, MSF is monitoring respiratory infections, which are on the increase. On January 23, MSF staff shall inoculate 5,000 people against polio and measles. These are the people who have remained in Gisenye in the camps of Mudende and Nkamira. The campaign is being done at the request of the Ministry of Health and in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO)." (MSF http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/b997f21865b10d59c1256b490058f1d5?OpenDocument)
    catastrophic release of carbon dioxide (as in lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon in 1986): "Fears were also voiced about what effect the molten lava and seismic activity could have on large pockets of carbon dioxide and methane gas that lie at the bottom of the lake, possibly leading to giant explosions that could cause tidal waves or massive releases of toxic gas that could kill hundreds, if not thousands of people." (UN OCHA http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/d85051d9b8aa821485256b4800715d2a?OpenDocument)

LIFE LINE INFRASTRUCTURE: Goma's water treatment plant has been returned to service, as has its electrical generating plant.

Health care services are being rehabilitated: "Goma has been cut in half, West and East. The East can now be fairly easily reached and a mobile clinic set up by Merlin there saw over 600 patients yesterday. The West is less accessible and providing aid to the hundreds of thousands across the hot lava has proved difficult. Merlin however hopes to have an emergency clinic up and running in the West by the end of today. Two hospitals in Goma have been destroyed and Bernard Leflaive, Merlin's Country Manager, is discussing with the 'Docteur Chef de Zone' (the district medical officer) Merlin's co-operation to support and rehabilitate the surviving centres. The priority for Merlin is to ensure that the health centres can be the primary outlet for medical aid so that the shift in focus can move from emergency clinics to sustainable health care." (MERLIN http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/696fe204d1669763c1256b4900498c66?OpenDocument)

Water lake water has been tested and seems suitable for human consumption for now. Therefore the IFRC and the local water company have started three pumping stations. However, 70% of the distribution pipes have been destroyed or damaged. (IFRC http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/b05922eddf7ac38885256b49005db276?OpenDocument)

POPULATION MOVEMENTS: Many/ most (?) people who originally fled Goma have returned despite officials' worries about possible further eruptions and other secondary hazards.

Population movements are very complex and rapidly changing and
require further discussion (below).

Population Movements
(IFRC http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/vID/F86B851F9D19A1F649256B480027BB58?OpenDocument)

"The town's estimated population of 500,000 people evacuated the area. Some 250,000 crossed to Rwanda at the Gisenyi border; 100,000 moved to the west and approximately 150,000 remained in and around Goma. As of Saturday 19 January, 300,000 people were reported in Gisenyi and moving towards Ruhengheri. The situation by Saturday indicated a major displacement crisis. However, by Sunday afternoon contacts with the Federation/ICRC/Rwanda Red Cross (RRC) teams in Goma and Gisenyi revealed a sudden shift with many thousands returning back and forth between Rwanda and the Congo sides of the border. This included many crossing to Bukavu. It remains uncertain tonight (Sunday) if these are permanent returns as Congolese seek alternatives to staying in Rwanda, or are if they are 'go-see and return' visits to establish food and water sources. Although the Rwanda authorities are urging people to remain where aid can more easily reach them, many appear not to want to. The UN is moving 600 refugees from the stadium in Ruhengeri to Bukavu."

Some people are report to have sought refuge in Uganda.
(XINHUA http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/dea3d23156eead9049256b4900276ce3?OpenDocument)

(Oxfam UK

"Goma is overshadowed by two large and active volcanoes- Nyiragongo and Nyamalagira. Part of the former is a large "hanging" crater of lava- said to be the largest active lava lake in the world. Any weaknesses in the sides could result in catastrophic consequences.

"The last time the volcano erupted was in 1977- at this time the lava flows reached the edge of the town; 2,000 deaths were caused in 30 minutes.

"Nyiragongo began erupting on 17th January 2002. Three lava flows came out of the volcano. The first cut off the road leading out of Goma to the North; the second cut the road leading out to the West; the third went towards the airport. Earthquakes and fires were reported across the town; the population was in panic and fleeing. There is little reliable information on deaths and injuries resulting from the eruption, or on numbers of people who have lost their houses.

"The population of Goma is estimated at around 3-400,000 people; Gisenye and surrounding villages around 100,000.

"Past experience of large scale population movements in the area - where cholera is endemic - indicate that there is a high risk of water-borne and hygiene related disease."


1977: volcano disaster that killed 2,000
("In 1977, about 2,000 people were killed when a lake of lava burst through fissures in Nyiragongo's flanks at 60 kilometers an hour, which experts said was the fastest lava flow on record."
(XINHUA http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/dea3d23156eead9049256b4900276ce3?OpenDocument)

1994-1996: influx of 800,000 Rwanda genocide refugees, cholera in the camps; during 1996 attacks of refugee camps

1994: Nyiragongo volcano becomes active again

1996: repatriation of Rwandan refugees from Goma camps

1997-1999: civil war (Mobutu overthrown in 1997, but in 1998 rebels take control of eastern Congo from the new government)

1999: cease fire

2000: U.N. observers deployed, established as the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC)

2000-2001: some continued fighting and breaches of cease fire

International Response

International response has been fast and generous, but ineffective in communicating with the evacuees and anticipating their movements (question of genuine uncertainty - see below).

Many international NGOs and other agencies, including the UN observers have been on the ground locally for some time. In part the immediate and close attention to this corner of Africa, and attention in the media, are a function of the industrial country embarrassment at having failed to intervene to save the lives of genocide victims in Rwanda in 1994.



Barbara Stocking, Director of Oxfam UK, had it right, in my opinion, during a BBC radio interview (22 January 2002) broadcast as part of the U.S. evening news program on National Public Radio, "The World"

She stated (I paraphrase) that the volcano provides an opportunity for the world to be reminded of the "root causes" of a development and humanitarian crisis in Congo that has been going on for many years. The war (or wars) in Congo is a root cause. Digging even deeper, one has to ask why fight over Congo. Ms. Stocking is direct and to the point: copper, diamonds, and gold.

Many of the other questions that arise in the Goma situation have as their backdrop the historical "scramble for Africa", the "second scramble" that includes Cold War support for the kleptocratic Mobutu dictatorship, and the most recent phases of the armed struggle over this huge territory and its riches.

[On the "scramble for Africa" see: http://www.cusd.chico.k12.ca.us/~bsilva/projects/scramble/]


What was the nature of municipal government in Goma? Where was municipal government in this crisis? Warnings? Evacuation? Protection against looting? Health services? Liaison with relief agencies?


There is no national Congo state activity so far. How will one evaluate the performance of the rebel force as a de facto government? Looting? Evacuation? Control of price gouging? Shelter and assistance for displaced?

It is still unclear what national and other Rwandan authorities have done in this crisis. Goma's residents had experience of being on host to Rwandan refugees from 1994-96, when 800,000 sought refuge and were accommodated near Goma. This may color Goma Congolese perceptions and attitudes toward being "a refugee". "I'd prefer to die here than stay as a refugee there," said 27-year-old Wamos Mubibya, a hotel management student. (Quote from REUTERS account of Goma residents' spurning the UN camps set up for them in Rwanda: http://wwww.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/dbf3583a0ccae37885256b47006442f0?OpenDocument).

The experience of having the cholera-ridden, internally-violent camps on their doorstep for two years, as well as complex international alliances in the more recent civil war, may be affecting people's decisions about where to seek shelter. "Most of the Congolese would rather risk the threat of another volcanic eruption than be far from their homes in what is perceived to be a hostile country," one aid worker said. "People have bad memories of the refugee camps that were established following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda." (UN OCHA, quoting an unidentified relief worker, http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/d85051d9b8aa821485256b4800715d2a?OpenDocument).

The national government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has sent word from Kinshasa that it is ready to provide relief assistance to Goma. However a spokesperson for the rebels that control the town has said that such assistance must come without any conditions. There is clearly a lot of suspicion that the national government might use its relief aid as a propaganda tool in its favor or, worse, take the unstable volcano crisis as an opportunity to begin another offensive to win back rebel-held territory.

Apart from the continuing tension between rebels that control this part of eastern Congo and the DRC National Government, there are still Congolese Mayi-Mayi militias, as well as remnants of the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe and ex-FAR active in the area. "We must consider the possibility that these groups could take advantage of the prevailing confusion to launch an offensive" against the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Goma that controls a large swathe of the eastern DRC." (UN OCHA: see url address above)

One report of Ugandan officials closing some border crossing points to refugees, later another report of displaced Goma residents being allowed to cross into Uganda. What is Uganda's role? Have Tanzania or Burundi offered any assistance?

South Africa is "drafting plans" for assistance. (There are RSA troops on peace keeping mission in nearby Burundi.)

Is this an opportunity for strengthening intra-African ties and building capacity for mutual assistance? The time is ripe, given the re-emergence of a form of Pan-Africanism (e.g. reorganization of the Organization of African Unity into an African Union, emergence of pan-African economic and human development plans such as Plan Omega, the Millennium Plan, and The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), as well as several African-brokered peace initiatives (Burundi, Somalia, etc.).


What volcanological monitoring had been going on? By whom? What process led to warnings? How was the location of the refugee camps decided? How were decisions made about the potability of lake water, the probability of more eruptions, the release of toxic gases?

As with the question of material assistance, there needs to be clear channels of communication and coordination. Is this a case of too many scientific opinions being offered? Too few? Of conflicting scientific judgements?

There seems to be genuine scientific uncertainty in this case. There is a difference of opinion about whether this was even a volcanic eruption (in the strict sense) or release of magma in the course of a series of earthquakes. However, lack of adequate communication among international, national (Rwandan), rebel leaders in control of Goma, and Goma's municipal authorities seem to have magnified this uncertainty.

Above all, there appears to have been no plan for effective communication with the population. The population fled in several directions and by several means:

    By boat to down lake Kivu to Bukavu
    By land down eastern shore of lake Kivu to Bukavu
    By land to Gisenyi in Rwanda

Many returned to Goma within a few days.

What authority is trying to communicate risks and opportunities to these people? What is the basis for their decisions?

What is the role of the church, of local NGOs (I have only seen one local NGO mentioned so far on ReliefWeb: Amis de Kivu, as well, of course, the Congolese Red Cross).

Because of the past history of international NGO involvement with the genocide refugees from 1994 and UN involvement in peace keeping, there was an unusually large concentration of international agencies on the ground in Goma and nearby. Did this speed the response? Did it simplify or complicate the response?


What was the status quo ante? Is that to be the goal of recovery? What was municipal capacity before? What was scientific capacity? If one agrees with Oxfam UK director, Barbara Stocking, that the prior situation was, in itself, a human development disaster, then what should the goal of recovery be?

In the future there will be an on-going volcano treat. (With the next heavy rain will there be mass movements of cement-like ash called lahar?) Are there more and less exposed sited in greater Goma? Have they been mapped? Will people be resettled there? How?

Concluding Thoughts

Many cities "live with volcanoes". There are dozens of examples in the Caribbean, Central America, the Andes, Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan. Seattle sits within view of Mt. Rainer, and Quito just below Pinchicha. Think of Hilo, Hawaii; San Salvador, El Salvador; Puebla, Mexico; or Kagoshima, Japan. What can they teach Goma? What are the preconditions for Goma's being able to institutionalize such lessons?

In this context an interesting comparison presents itself. As one looks back a few years hence at the recovery process on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where the principle city was destroyed, and the recovery of Goma, how will the two compare?

On a more philosophical note, a few questions about urbanism and urbanization suggest themselves. Throughout history cities have served regions of towns, villages, homesteads. They have had links with other cities of the same size and larger ones. They have been part of networks.

Cities have economic, administrative, military, and social functions.

Presumably Goma has been such a city? Has it slowly ceased to be a city in any of those senses since 1994? If so, can it be such a city again?

Does one perhaps need a new name for a new kind of city: isolated by disintegration of the national state administrative and economic network? Maintained by the economic activity of foreign relief agencies, militias, and peace keepers? At risk to a wide variety of natural and technological hazards because of the deterioration of managerial capacity, economic viability, and deterioration of infrastructure?

Serajevo? Kandahar? Mogadishu? Now: Goma?

Back to the top

Radix: the source or origin; the root
Quick look up at Dictionary.com

For questions regarding this website, contact: maureen.fordham@northumbria.ac.uk | This page was last updated on 16 April 2003