Volcanic Gas Cloud Threatens Congo City

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 21, 2002 (ENS) - The volcano Mount Nyiragongo erupted Thursday sending molten lava down the mountain in three tracks inundating the city of Goma on the shores of Lake Kivu. Today, the mountain has stopped erupting and the greatest danger is the release of clouds of carbon dioxide and methane.

With over 80 percent of Goma's buildings destroyed, at first the entire city of 500,000 was evacuated, most moving across the border to Gisenyi, Rwanda.

Today, most of the people displaced from Goma are returning, believing it to be safe, or concerned about damage to or theft of their property.

Unconfirmed reports indicate 45 people have died in the disaster. Officials fear others may perish from drinking the waters of Lake Kivu that have been poisoned by streams of lava and human wastes that could cause diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

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Lava from Mount Nyiragongo covers the streets of Goma (Photos courtesy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
The Rwandan Minister of State for Local Affairs estimated that some 50,000 displaced persons remain in Rwanda. An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 displaced persons remain 24 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Goma in and around Sake.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that the last groundshaking tremor from the volcano occurred early Sunday.

"The risk of a rapid release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane gas remains a major concern and potential threat to the population," OCHA warns. "Moreover, Lake Kivu contains large amounts of CO2 which could partially degas and build up an invisible carbon dioxide cloud which could, at times, fill the air, according to some experts."

Small fires continue burning throughout Goma town, with smell of gas reported. At the Goma airport, buildings remain entirely intact, however the runway was partially covered. The Gisenyi airport in Rwanda is capable of accommodating small aircraft.

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The Red Cross offers aid to thousands fleeing the molten lava.
The United Nations Children's Fund is rushing an additional 60 metric tons of emergency supplies to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in an urgent effort to reach the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children, displaced by the violent volcanic eruption and lava flow. Of the approximately 350,000 people affected by the volcano, 200,000 are children under the age of 15. Of those, some 100,000 are under the age of five.

An earlier 28 metric tons of emergency supplies, dispatched from the UNICEF warehouse in Kinshasa, arrived in Kigali on Saturday, and trucked for distribution to the towns of Gisenyi in Rwanda, and Goma and Bukavu in DRC.

Belgium, France and Germany have contributed a total of 3.6 million ($3.2 million) and the UK and Sweden a total of $4 million to the relief effort. The United States sent a planeload of 20,000 blankets; 20,000 jerry cans; water bladders and 5,000 dust masks plus $50,000 for the relief.

The government of Rwanda has established its own coordination office in Kigali, based at the Ministry of Gender. Sectoral commissions have been created, with the UN World Food Programme and the national Red Cross leading in food security; the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health overseeing health issues; and UN High Commission for Refugees supervising matters related to shelter. CARE International is coordinating NGO activities in Kigali.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan assured the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda that he will put the assets of the United Nations to full use in assisting them in mitigating the consequences of this disaster.

One of Africa's most active volcanoes, Nyiragongo is associated with the East African Rift and is part of the Virunga Volcanic Chain. It is in the Congo's Virunga National Park, not far from the border with Rwanda. The most recent eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo was in 1977, when the lava flow covered 20 square kilometers, killed 2,000 people, and destroyed 400 houses.