Ticking Time Bomb: The Most Dangerous City in the World

The million or so residents of Goma, a city located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, always seem to have something to worry about.

A person might think that the picturesque view of Lake Kivu, upon whose shores Goma is situated, might at least help provide a tranquil distraction from being stuck in the middle of what is essentially a war zone.  Goma has been invaded by rebels in the recent past and has, for over 20 years, been dealing with the aftereffects of the Rwandan genocide and the resulting flood of refugees seeking safety and shelter within its walls.

But if you ask seismologists what Goma should really be focusing its concern on, their answer would be the giant ticking time bomb of a volcano it calls a neighbour, Mount Nyiragongo.

Lava covered anything and everything Goma following the 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. Photo: Steve Axford
Lava covered anything and everything in Goma following the 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. Photo: Steve Axford

That’s because the 3470 metre (11,382 feet) high Nyiragongo, situated about 20 km (approximately 12.5 miles) from Goma, has a disturbing history of trying to destroy everything in its path when it erupts.  And erupt this effusive volcano did in 2002, when 15 million cubic yards of molten lava relentlessly poured towards Goma’s core, decimating nearly one-fifth of the city.

Estimates are as high as 147 people being killed and an additional 350,00 forced from their homes, trying to outrun lava that was clocked flowing 100 kilometres an hour (just over 60mph).  The haphazard construction of Goma’s infrastructure, with many of its roads unpaved and tin-roofed shacks built anywhere there’s room, makes evacuation of residents an undertaking that is borderline hopeless.

The 2002 eruption brought focus to that problem and more when 80% of Goma International Airport’s runways were destroyed by lava.  In turn, this made the delivery of any incoming emergency aid nearly impossible.

The city of Goma.  Photo: Jon Cadd

As it also turns out, that beautiful body of water Goma is surrounded by is playing a huge part in all of this. Lake Kivu hides massive amounts of carbon dioxide in its depths, a result of the lake’s proximity to Mount Nyiragongo.

The levels of gas are steadily increasing and experts worry of a possible limnic eruption, where dissolved co2 bursts from the lake into the surrounding region and devastating amounts of deadly gases suffocate anything that breathes-be it man or beast.  Already, pockets of carbon dioxide, invisibly odourless and escaping from fractures in the volcano’s lava fields, are killing people living in the surrounding countryside as well as in the city itself.

The locals will tell you these deaths are caused not by suffocating gases but by an ‘evil wind’ they call mazuku.  It’s unclear if the locals have a name for what happens when carbon dioxide is mixed with streaming lava and explodes, which would most likely be the case in a future eruption.

Nyiragongo Volcano
Lava Lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano in Virunga National Park in Eastern DRC. Image: Cai Tjeenk Willink, distributed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Attempts are being made to get a more comprehensive understanding of Nyiragongo in an effort to better predict when the next major eruption might take place.  The Goma Volcano Observatory, funded primarily by the UN and the European Union, is doing what it can with the minimal amount of resources it has available to it.

Being in the middle of a highly combative region, where monitoring stations are often ransacked and a less than stable government is calling the shots, adds to the mountainous pile of problems the observatory faces in its attempt to study volcanic activity in the area.  Along with the Mount Nyriangongo Risk Management Unit, the observatory has been putting a focus on educating residents (we’re looking at you, mazuku believers) on what to do in the event of a future eruption.

Considering some experts think the only way to ensure the safety of Goma is to relocate the entire city about 30km (about 19 miles), the importance of awareness and a reliable early warning system become even more apparent.