The night sky over eastern Democratic Republic of Congo glowed a bright red colour as the Mount Nyiragongo volcano erupted the night of Saturday, 22 May. Lava spewed east into the surrounding areas, destroying homes and other buildings. The river of lava stopped just a few metres away from the neighbouring city of Goma. Thousands of people have fled their homes as a result of the eruption. According to Al Jazeera, around 5,000 people crossed the border, fleeing to Rwanda, and are being housed in schools and places of worship. Around 25,000 have fled northwest to the city of Sake.
As of 23 May, there were 15 reported casualties. According to BBC News, four deaths were believed to be from prisoners who died after attempting to escape prison. Nine allegedly died in a traffic accident from others attempting to flee. Two more deaths apparently resulted from burning. Some people returned to their homes, however, more than 170 children are currently feared to be missing. UNICEF is setting up transit centers to aid unaccompanied children. While Goma’s airport appears not to have been affected by the eruption, a major highway connecting it to the city of Beni has been blocked by the lava, effectively eliminating a route to access aid and support.
Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption is the first one since 2002, which left 250 people dead and 120,000 homeless. Before that, the last eruption took place in 1977, which killed around 600 people. There had been several concerns about the volcano leading up to the tragedy. Before this eruption, volcano watchers feared that recent volcanic activity at Mount Nyiragongo was similar to that observed in the eruptions from 1977 and 2002. The volcano is normally monitored by the Goma Volcano Observatory (also known as the Observatoire Volcanologique de Goma). It was founded in 1986, and performs regular maintenance procedures for the volcano, including seismic, infrasound, gas and ground temperature monitoring.
In a 2020 interview with BBC World, GVO director Katcho Karume expressed concern about the volcano’s lava lake filling up quickly. This would increase the chance of an eruption in the next few years. An earthquake could also speed up the likelihood of an eruption. The GVO has received approximately $2.3 million in funding from the World Bank since 2015. However, in 2020, they withdrew funding, due to accusations of embezzlement and corruption, as there were fears the GVO was not adequately monitoring Mount Nyiragongo.
According to the National Post, GVO scientific director Celestin Kasereka Mahinda spoke to Congolese radio network Radio Okapi, revealing that between October of 2020 to April of this year, the observatory did not have an internet connection. Consequently, analysts were unable to perform comprehensive seismic checks on the volcano. Mahinda went on to say that by April, when the GVO regained internet access, they began recording warning signals. On 10 May, just under two weeks before the eruption, the GVO released a report stating that increased seismic activity had been observed at Nyiragongo. Since the GVO did not have any data prior to April of 2021, analysts believed they were merely indicating the start of volcanic activity. As a result, the eruption on the 22nd came as a surprise.
The death toll is expected to rise as time passes and more missing people are found. As aid continues to be supplied to those affected by the eruption, many are calling upon Congolese authorities to provide support in helping them rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the destruction.
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