Need for precautions against future eruptions in Goma

A consultant volcanologist with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Dr Jacques Durieux, has emphasised that "a current of confidence" between volcanologists, nongovernmental organisations and the local population is essential for dealing with any future volcanic eruptions close to Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Speaking in Nairobi on Wednesday, he said that, following the eruption of Mt Nyiragongo on 17 January, false rumours were rife, many of which were spread not by local people, but by expatriates working in the town in the aftermath of the eruption. "We had to use a lot of time killing false rumours," he said, stressing that in the context of an eruption it was essential to have clear and consensual messages going out to local people, in order to help them.

Volcanologists working in the environs of Goma have established an observatory, which should, said Durieux, be up to international standards in terms of equipment and trained local vulcanologists in a year's time.

"We cannot build a shield to protect the people in the event of another eruption," he said, but added that with an established observatory, and clear lines of communication coming from it, people could protect themselves. "People have to know that we are working for them," he said, noting that education programmes would be initiated to explain what the scientists working in the observatory are doing.

"Volcanoes kill by ignorance, because people don't know what to do," said Durieux, emphasising that close links must be established between the education sector and the volcano observatory.

In the case of civil unrest, he added, the thousands of dollars worth of equipment could also be protected if local people understood that the scientists were working in their best interests. "The Goma observatory will be there to give advice, long after the expatriate nongovernmental agencies are gone," he said, and also that it was essential to build a positive public image of it.

Stressing that a decision to evacuate the city was a political one, and would not be taken by the volcanologists, in the event of a future eruption in the vicinity of the city, the option of establishing a system whereby a flag on Mt Goma would let people know in which direction to flee was being considered, he said. "It would be extremely easy to tell people where to go." Radio could also be used, as the most effective means of communication, giving people a message in real-time.

The Nyiragongo volcano is one of eight on the borders of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. Only two of these are still active: Nyiragongo, which previously erupted on 10 January 1977, and the more active Nyamuragira, which last erupted in 2001. The situation in the area remained "unstable" and "needs to be watched very carefully", Durieux said.