Survivors recall Cameroon lake disaster
By Tansa Musa
YAOUNDE (Reuters) – It struck after dark, a silent killer
that snuffed out 1,800 lives.
The lethal gas cloud that erupted from a volcanic lake in
Cameroon on the evening of August 21, 1986 was invisible but
not unforeseeable, and many fear the “killer lake” may strike
Moreover, many survivors say they have had too little help
to start life afresh elsewhere and some are returning to their
ancestral lands by Lake Nyos, ignoring government safety
warnings and experts’ fears the lake wall itself may collapse.
Elias Bea, from Subum village, spent years in one of nine
resettlement camps built for the 3,000 evacuees. But the land
was not fertile enough to feed his two wives and six children.
“My parents and great-great-grandparents grew up and lived
here in Subum for centuries and nothing happened to them. So I
have come back to stay, to work the farm and keep watch over
their graves, come what may,” said Bea, 55, from Subum.
Just six of Subum’s 600-800 people survived the cloud. Most
victims died running away.
Some survivors suffered chemical burns and lung damage from
inhaling the mixture of carbon dioxide and sulphurous gases.
Those left in the camps battle with poverty and
unemployment, said Mary Kimbi, president of the Buabua-Kimbi
Lake Nyos Survivors Cultural and Development Association.
“It is 20 years since this disaster hit us … since then
we have been living below the poverty line,” she said.
Camp populations have multiplied. Buabua and Kimbi camps
lack road links, water, power and health services, and a
primary school for 700 pupils has just one teacher, Kimbi said.
“Many pregnant women have taken ill and have lost their
lives due to poor medical attention,” she added.
She said villagers trying to earn money by growing surplus
crops lacked land and transport, meaning some had to trek for
hours with loads on their heads to get to the nearest road.
Such pressures on land, combined with destruction of crops
by cattle, stoked age-old tensions between herders and
Many want to go home but the government warns Lake Nyos,
where a previous gas cloud killed 37 people in 1984, is unsafe.
A project to tap gas dissolved in the volcanic crater’s
deep waters to reduce the risk has met delays and cash
And geologists warn the natural dam which holds back the
lake may itself collapse in 10-20 years, unleashing another
cloud of lethal gas and sending a wall of water downhill toward
up to 10,000 people in Cameroon and neighboring Nigeria.
Last year U.N. experts recommended the lake be made safe by
lowering the water level by 20 meters (yards) and removing the
dangerous section of dam, speeding up gas tapping and preparing
a program to return residents to the area safely.
Officials at the Territorial Administration Ministry’s
Department of Civil Protection have said the government is
working on an action plan to be published soon.
No one at the ministry was available for official comment.
For many it has already taken too long. Despite the
warnings, Bea believes life in Subum is better than the camps.
“We were hungry. You do not expect a man like me to stay in
that place and let my family die of hunger when my very fertile
family land is lying waste and taken over by the bush?” he