In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Nyiragongo volcano is one of the world’s most active. It is part of the Virunga chain, in the North Kivu province, along the border with Rwanda.
Against all expectations, this volcano erupted on Saturday, May 22, 2021, killing at least 31 people. The subsequent lava flow and volcanic ash affected more than 400,000 people in the city of Goma, several thousands of whom were displaced to neighbouring Rwanda.
The Nyiragongo eruption left a trail of destruction in its wake. Five health facilities were damaged including CBK – Virunga, one of the region’s largest. The local health system was overwhelmed as emergency cases kept rising, weeks after the incident.
Roads, powerlines and schools were also damaged.
A failed warning system
Both the local population and emergency responders were caught flat-footed by the 7 pm (local time) eruption. The Goma Volcano Observatory, bogged down by resource constraints, had not been able to keep tabs on the seismic activity at Mount Nyiragongo.
“It was difficult to sustain operations because we did not have enough money. We would only monitor occasionally; like once a month,” said Célestin Kasereka Mahinda, the observatory’s scientific director.
According to provincial civil protection coordinator Joseph Kambale Makundi, the lack of a timely warning led to confusion, panic and avoidable deaths.
“This eruption demonstrated how the Congolese state has failed in its mission to protect the population and their property. The government does not pay much attention to disaster risks despite alerts issued by the OVG (Goma Volcano Observatory),” he said.
The Goma region is an area of intense volcanic activity, with six volcanoes, including Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, standing at 3,470 and 3,058 meters above sea level respectively. The deadliest eruption in Nyiragongo in 1977 claimed the lives of over 600 people.
Rapid, unplanned urbanization
The population of Goma City has more than doubled since the last eruption in 2002. For the over 1.5 million residents, the earth tremors experienced just 48 hours after the eruption was a reminder that the city is built on shaky ground. Experts say that the city lies along a tectonic divide that is progressively pulling apart; the East African Rift.
Such a phenomenon necessitates that the city’s development be guided by a strong urban development plan that also takes into consideration seismic building codes. This is not the case in Goma; because of this, even short term solutions like a ban on building in certain areas, have not been entirely effective.
But the lack of an urban development plan in Goma is not entirely a local problem, the country also lacks a national disaster risk reduction plan. Such policies provide the basis to anticipate and prevent disasters and for effective humanitarian response.
“The Law on fundamental principles relating to environmental protection requires the State to develop, among other things, an early warning system, a national disaster management plan and a national emergency response strategy. It’s a shame that none of this has been done yet,” said Félix Lilakako, an expert in environmental law.
At the moment, the country relies on the civil protection unit in the interior ministry which can only respond after a disaster happens.
During his visit to Goma, the Congolese Prime Minister, Sama Lukonde Kyenge in his address to the press admitted to institutional and policy weaknesses being behind the Nyiragongo disaster and promised action to address them.
As families displaced by the eruption settle back, it is the hope of many that the latest tragedy will mark the beginning of long term solutions based on scientific evidence, active monitoring and better-planned urbanization.