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Did anyone monitor seismic activity at Mount Nyiragongo?

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
May 26, 2021

The regional observatory stationed in Goma to monitor the Mount Nyiragongo volcano had not been working for several months, DW has learned. The Goma Volcano Observatory was caught by surprise.

Afrika Kongo Vulkanausbruch

Jack Kahorha, a DW correspondent based in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern city of Goma, reported that the Goma Volcano Observatory had not been able to keep tabs on the seismic activity at Mount Nyiragongo.

"The volcanic observatory was not able to monitor the situation on the ground," Kahorha said.  "The information we received is that the observatory had not been monitoring the volcano for seven months until it erupted. The team also had no internet at the station. And they have not been paid for several months, while we understand that the World Bank had given a significant donation for the observatory's upkeep."

Mount Nyiragongo erupted suddenly on Saturday night, turning the sky a fiery red. About 1,000 houses were destroyed and more than 5,000 people displaced by the eruption, the United Nations reported.

The RSM seismic monitoring agency in neighboring Rwanda, which is near Goma, announced that it had detected a 5.1 magnitude earthquake at 5:46 a.m. (0346 GMT), followed by a 4.1 magnitude tremor at 6:12 a.m. Regional volcanologists have recorded hundreds of shocks.

Relief efforts to save lives

The UN peacekeeping mission in the region reported that the lava was not flowing toward Goma, a city of nearly 2 million people. Residents reported feeling tremors at regular intervals throughout Tuesday night. On Wednesday two powerful shocks triggered widespread alarm and caused terrified people to run out of their homes.

"According to the authorities, 32 people have died in incidents related to the eruption, including seven people killed by lava flow and five others asphyxiated by gases," the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported.

DW's Etienne Gatanazi, reporting from Rubavu in Rwanda, said panic had gripped the border town and many people were still fleeing on Wednesday. Rubavu is located at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo. "Rubavu is becoming a ghost city as fumes from the volcano made everything invisible to see," Gatanazi said. The tremors destroyed more than 140 buildings in the town.

"We have never seen anything like this before," Elysee, a resident of Rubavu, told DW. "We are feeling tremors constantly, and people are always running in disarray. These earthquakes are beyond what we knew."

Aid agencies have set up a temporary refugee camp in the Busasamana sector of Rubavu for people fleeing Goma and nearby villages. More than 600 people have so far sought refuge there, as schools in the district have had to close.

Roads cut off

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that a 1.7-kilometer (1.1-mile) stretch of road connecting Goma to the north of the province was covered with lava, blocking the movement of people and goods. Some 280,000 people were displaced by conflict and fighting in the area before the eruption.

DW's Kahorha reports that government officials are nowhere to be seen. "There is no communication on the part of government to tell people what to do and how to keep safe," he said.

"There is no assistance coming in right now" Kahorha said, "and we do not know what the Congolese government is doing to help."

Spewing water through cracks

Multiple cracks in the earth have emerged in Goma in the past day, some several hundred meters long, across the city's main boulevards. Some are spewing water, possibly from nearby Lake Kivu.

"The opening of these cracks on the roads like this is terrifying," said Joseph Mapendo, a 32-year-old motorbike taxi driver. "They should tell us if we should evacuate the town or

if we can stay until the tremors are over."

The lava flow stopped a few hundred meters short of Goma city limits, but wrecked 17 villages on the way, cut the principal electricity supply and blocked a major road, disrupting aid deliveries to one of the most food-insecure places in Africa.

Mount Nyiragongo
The death toll is expected to climbImage: Djaffar Al Katanty/REUTERS

Mount Nyiragongo is Africa's most active volcano. It last erupted in January 2002 and covered large swathes of Goma, killing about 250 people. The last major eruption was in 1977 with a devastating effect, killing roughly 2,000 people.

The city experienced 119 tremors on Monday, but the intensity has started to decrease, said Kasereka Mahinda, scientific director at the Goma Volcano Observatory.

The lava lake in the volcano's crater appears to have refilled, raising fears of new fissures or another eruption, UNHCR said.

AfricaLink on Air - 25 May 2021