Volcanic Eruption in the DRCOn May 22, 2021, the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted. Hundreds of thousands of people experienced the aftershocks, including contaminated water and structural damage. The destruction of water infrastructure means 500,000 people now lack access to a safe water supply. In a press release, USAID announced that it would be committing $100,000 worth of humanitarian aid to secure clean and safe drinking water for citizens affected by the volcanic eruption in the DRC.

History of Mount Nyiragongo

The Nyiragongo volcano stands almost 12,000 feet tall on the eastern border of the DRC in the strip of Virunga Mountains, a chain of active volcanoes. The volcano is one of the most active in the world and has the largest, most active lava lake. Nyiragongo has erupted several times since 1884, with the most severe eruption occurring in 1977, taking up to 400 lives. The most recent eruption before 2021 occurred in 2002, resulting in about 100 deaths and displacing up to 400,000 people.

The Aftershocks of the 2021 Eruption

The 2021 volcanic eruption in the DRC led to about 32 deaths and thousands of displacements. On May 30, 2021, in a period of just 24 hours, 92 aftershock earthquakes and tremors occurred but only about four were felt by citizens. For safety purposes, more than 400,000 people were evacuated from the North Kivu area.

Cholera, a diarrheal infection caused by drinking contaminated water, is an increased threat since the eruption.  Natural disasters often increase the risk of epidemics, especially those transmitted via contaminated water. The eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in the DRC caused the destruction of a vital water pipe and damaged a water reservoir. The damage cut off water access for about 500,000 people.

On June 7, 2021, UNICEF and partners announced that they were working to restore the water supply to the area. For temporary water access, UNICEF “installed 15 emergency station chlorination points” close to Lake Kivu. UNICEF also committed to assisting a task force by “supporting installation of 1,500 meters of pipe on top of the lava to replace pipework that has melted.”

The Hope of Crisis Assistance

Prior to the 2021 volcanic eruption in the DRC, the nation was already struggling with a humanitarian crisis, following years of political violence and conflict. At the beginning of 2021, the United Nations predicted that 19.6 million people in the DRC were in need of humanitarian assistance. With more than five million displaced persons and the highest recorded levels of food insecurity before the eruption even took place, the humanitarian crisis in the DRC has only grown. The U.N. requires financial assistance from the international community in order to comprehensively address the crisis in the DRC.

The United States serves as the largest donor to the DRC, providing more than $130 million worth of humanitarian assistance in 2021 alone. The U.S. commitment of $100,000 for water security initiatives in the DRC will aid the efforts of organizations such as UNICEF, protecting the well-being of vulnerable Congolese people.

– Monica Mellon
Photo: Flickr

Residents of GomaOn May 22, 2021, Mount Nyiragongo erupted close to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s city of Goma. The active volcano’s worst eruption was in 1977, a catastrophe that left more than 600 people dead. Nyiragongo’s volcanic activities have ignited fear in the residents of Goma who are already enduring the impacts of poverty stemming from years of civil war in the country.

The 2021 Volcanic Eruption

The Goma Volcano Observatory is responsible for monitoring the Mount Nyiragongo volcano. However, ever since the World Bank cut its funding in 2020, the observatory “lacked the funding, resources and infrastructure necessary to closely observe the volcano and forecast major eruptions.” From October 2020 to April 2021, the observatory did not have an internet connection “to conduct comprehensive seismic checks on Nyiragongo.” Due to a lack of forecasting ability, the observatory could not predict the eruption and warn residents to evacuate.

Following a government directive, after the eruption, the residents of Goma were evacuated in the thousands. Villagers who lived close to the city of Goma fled to the city center. The lava flowing out of the mountain’s crater threatened access to the airport in Goma and one of the main roads, further limiting evacuation routes.

The Devastation of the Eruption

According to ReliefWeb, the eruption resulted in about 30 deaths and almost half a million people were left without access to water due to damaged water infrastructure. Without proper water sources, people are prone to infectious water-borne diseases. Some citizens were burned by the lava and others experienced asphyxiation from volcanic gases. ReliefWeb reported that about “415,700 people have been displaced across several localities in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and across the border in Rwanda.” Aside from the destruction of infrastructure that occurred, people converging in large numbers to evacuate heightened the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The Positive Impact of Organizations

Despite the devastation caused by the volcanic eruption, various groups were quick in their response, preventing further disaster. ReliefWeb provided frequent updates on the situation, enabling organizations and individuals to take precautionary and calculated steps during evacuation.

The UNHCR was among the first organizations to respond to the volcanic eruption in Goma. The organization, in collaboration with others, looked to aid the displaced in Goma by providing shelter and relief items. Reduced funding significantly impacted these efforts. Nevertheless, the UNHCR provided “soap, blankets, solar lamps, plastic sheeting and sleeping mats to 435 vulnerable families,” in the Congolese town of Sake. The UNHCR also established four shelters to temporarily house more than 400 displaced people in Sake. On June 7, 2021, the prime minister of the DRC “announced the progressive return of displaced people to Goma.”

Residents of Goma Return Home

Displaced citizens have gradually returned to resettle in Goma. In early June 2021, the prime minister of the DRC spearheaded the phased return of thousands of people as seismic activity reduced considerably. The government provided buses to help people return to Goma. The government also declared the airport safe for landing, which further facilitated the delivery of international humanitarian aid.

Slowly, the city is returning to normalcy. Businesses are reopening and vendors are back on the streets of the city. The groups of people who took refuge in Rwanda also returned. Thousands of people have returned home to rebuild their lives and reconstruct the areas destroyed by lava flow.

Even in unprecedented natural disasters, organizations can help to avert worst-case scenarios. From the volcanic eruption, it is clear to see how funding cuts can lead to severe consequences. The situation has emphasized the importance of funding to the Goma Volcano Observatory and the significance of early warning systems.

– Frank Odhiambo
Photo: Flickr

Solutions to Volcanic EruptionsThroughout history, volcanic eruptions have caused countless injuries, deaths and destruction. Many of the eruptions include concurrent disasters beyond the direct flow of lava. These include tsunamis, agricultural deterioration and aerosols that cloud the atmosphere and reduce local or even global temperatures. This was the case during and after the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which claimed more than 100,000 lives. Since then, volcanoes continue to cause numbers of casualties while damaging infrastructure and impacting productivity around the globe. Many people view volcanoes as unstoppable forces of nature. In reality, there are several ways to mitigate the damage that volcanoes cause and the resulting poverty. It is impossible to stop volcanoes from erupting, however, several solutions to volcanic eruptions can help prevent loss of life and property.

Volcano Observatories

The most important factor in mitigating the damage caused by volcanic eruptions is predicting when the eruptions will occur. The endangered people are then able to evacuate accordingly. Accurate predictions tend to rely on established observatories near a given volcano. Each volcano observatory is occupied by a handful of experts who monitor the volcano’s behavior in order to predict eruptions.

Beyond merely existing and making accurate predictions, observatories should “have credibility and formal agreements with local and national governments.” This promotes effective action in times of crisis, as referenced by geologist Jacob Lowenstern. Historically, observatories were among the most important solutions to volcanic eruptions. However, the observatories can be expensive to build and maintain and require investments in equipment, technology and software. Recent innovations may allow developing countries to predict eruptions at a more affordable cost.

Deep Learning AI and Satellites

Historically, volcanologists have relied on ground observatories to predict eruptions. Due to recent innovations, it may be possible to reliably predict eruptions from satellites. Satellites are much less expensive to maintain as a whole. Satellite information was once unreliable due to noisy data, however, deep learning AI is increasingly proficient at filling the gaps in the data to form useful information. Currently, a group of researchers from Penn State University, with support from NASA, are working to improve the models to allow for accurate predictions of eruptions around the world.

Redirection of Lava Flow

While prediction methods and observatories can save countless lives, the facilities have little to no impact on the amount of property damage caused by inevitable eruptions. Many large cities in developing countries, including Managua in Nicaragua and Legazpi City in the Philippines, are built next to active volcanoes. Fortunately for the cities, there is still the option of diverting or stopping the flow of lava in order to prevent loss of infrastructure.

Lava redirection may be an expensive process, but when a lava flow is headed directly toward a city, redirection protects the city. In 1983, a large team armed with bulldozers, explosives and firehoses was able to divert the flow of the eruption from Mount Etna in Italy. While the project required an estimated $2 million, volcanologist John Lockwood says the diversion prevented the loss of around $100 million in property damage. Stopping the flow of lava is easier in the case of eruptions near the coast. In 1973 in Iceland, damage was mitigated by channeling large amounts of seawater into the lava to solidify it.

Lava diversion has its risks and some attempts have been unsuccessful. Some communities are not open to lava redirection. For example, some Hawaiians hesitate to interfere with lava flows due to spiritual beliefs surrounding Pele, the volcano goddess. However, as a last resort attempt to protect a city, lava redirection is still worth considering.

Continued Research on Solutions

Although volcanoes remain a force of nature that will inevitably cause damage, recent solutions to volcanic eruptions may improve safety and prevent poverty in the affected regions. Continued research into the solutions could make the solutions even more affordable and practical, resulting in more stable economies and the reduced risk of poverty.

Sawyer Lachance
Photo: Flickr