March 31, 2009

Two Volcanoes On Verge Of Eruption In Congo

Science and aid agencies said that two volcanoes may erupt in heavily populated eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of fighting have already forced a million people from their homes.

Scientists in Goma have registered high levels of seismic activity in recent weeks, which is considered an early warning sign of an impending eruption, around the Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira volcanoes.

"There is heavy activity around Nyiragongo, but it's more centered on Nyamuragira, around 8 miles away," Dieudonne Wafula, lead scientist at the Volcanological Observatory of Goma, told Reuters on Monday.

Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, sending a river of lava through the city, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of people.

"Red Cross volunteers are on alert to help the population, which still has memories of the (2002) eruption ... which displaced around 400,000 people," Zebe Kitabingo, head of the local chapter of the Congolese Red Cross, said in a statement.

Eastern Congo is still struggling with fighting between government soldiers and rebels that has rumbled on despite the official end of a 1998 - 2003 war.

There have been about 5.4 million people killed over the past decade during the conflict.

Since late 2006, the fighting has displaced about 1 million people in North Kivu, and thousands more of internal refugees have flocked to the relative security of camps on the outskirts of Goma, a city home to over 600,000 people.

Even though the city is close to the two volcanoes, Wafula said Goma itself did not appear to be at risk, as the level of lava in the Nyiragongo crater is relatively low.

"It's less worrying. The higher the lava level, the higher the probability of a serious eruption. The risk is greater for the villages west of the Nyamulagira volcano," he said.

Wafula warned against the dangers of airborne ash, which can contaminate drinking water, poison livestock, and disrupt air traffic.