Plans by the Cameroonian authorities to move thousands of survivors of the 1986 Lake Nyos gas explosion back to their original homeland have provoked opposition, with concerns over environmental safety and potential land disputes.
Some 12,000 people now live in camps in the Menchum area in Northwest Region following the August 1986 disaster in which carbon dioxide spewed out of the nearby volcanic lake, engulfing villages and killing hundreds of people.
Adolphe Lele Lafrique, head of the Lake Nyos Disaster Management Committee and the governor of Northwest Region, announced in June that survivors would be relocated to Nyos area, but did not say when and how they would be repatriated.
Jeanvier Mvogo of the Department of Civil Protection at the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization said work was under way to render resettlement in Nyos safe.
“The disaster management committee simply alerted the victims to prepare their minds that they will be returning to their homeland. No exact date can be given because work is still going on,” Mvogo told IRIN.
Despite the safety assurance, reticence abounds among the survivors and some environmental groups. “The announcement to resettle victims in Nyos is questionable,” said David Neng of Environment Watch, a local NGO.
“A lot more needs to be done at the site such as building infrastructure and public utilities that will accommodate the people. Problems related to land rights and the use of natural resources by the victims and the people who rushed to settle in Nyos some years after the tragedy need to be solved,” he told IRIN.
For Njilah Isaac Konfor, a campaigner for Lake Nyos disaster survivors, the Cameroonian government has “made great efforts in de-gassing the lake… But the efforts have been rather slow if we consider that the disaster happened 27 years ago and the survivors have been living in these makeshift camps for this long.”
The survivors were accommodated in seven resettlement camps. However, basic health, education and other necessities are scarce. Pastoralist communities have been forced to take up farming on small plots, while farming communities decry the lack of sufficient land.
“I don’t trust these promises [to be relocated to Nyos]. It’s been 27 years in this camp and we still lack basic necessities such as hospitals, water and sustainable livelihood support. I don’t think life there will be any better,” said Ismaela Muhamadu who lives with his eight children and two wives in a mud house in Upkwa village in Menchum.
Muhamadu was six when the disaster struck. His parents and siblings were among the 1,800 people killed by the carbon dioxide cloud that swept through Nyos village and up to 15km from the lake, snuffing out almost all human and animal life.
Initially some 4,500 people who could not find refuge were resettled in the camps. This population has risen to around 12,000.
“I’d rather suffer here than die in Nyos. What we need is support not relocation,” said Salifu Buba who lives in Kumfutu camp in Menchum. “We don’t have rights to grazing land. The 30-50 square metres allotted to each household is not even enough for farming, let alone grazing.
“What we know and like to practice as Bororo [ethnic group] is cattle grazing, but when we came to the camp we had no other choice but to become farmers. Many cannot survive on farming because Bororo people dislike farming,” said Buba, 57, arguing that the government should have offered them more sustainable solutions such as giving each family one or two cows to raise. Instead, the government gave them farm tools and oxen for ploughing.
A different view, however, can be heard among residents of nearby Ipalim camp, which hosts mainly Bantu people who are subsistence farmers.
“I would like to go back to the land of abundance because with the few square meters of land that each family was allotted in this resettlement site it is difficult to practice farming,” said Stephen Nju. “We beg for farmland from the community that accepted us here, but we are always regarded as strangers and we have several incidents of farmer-grazer conflicts.”
“We have heard that so much work is going on in Nyos to de-gas the lake and fortify the dam, but we are still waiting for the promises of returning to Nyos to be realized. This camp site is so isolated, we don’t have access roads and health centres,” said Lydia Nzeh, another Ipalim resident.
According to SATREPS, a Japanese government research programme working on safety at Lake Nyos, carbon dioxide from the lake was reduced from 710,000 to 425,000 tons between 2001 and 2012, a 40-percent reduction. The gas concentration around the lake is now considered negligible, said SATREPS in a report.
“The gas level in the lake does not pose any danger to the people around the lake but de-gassing work continues,” said Mvogo of the Department of Civil Protection.
A community of some 200 people currently lives near Lake Nyos around which a security zone has been established with military surveillance to protect installations and infrastructure for the de-gassing project.
However, there are also concerns about the possible breach of the lake’s dam. “Operations have begun to strengthen the weak natural dam. This will reduce the danger of the dam failing and creating a flood,” said Laban Tansi, an Environment Ministry official.