Alex Wynter in Gisenyi, Rwanda
The Rwanda Red Cross (RRC) in Gisenyi, in the western district of Rubavu, is urgently updating the risk reduction plan for the communities that lie in the shadow of the Nyiragongo volcano amid signs it’s stirring again.
The plan centres on preparations for the population movement that would follow not just an actual eruption but also possibly any raising of the alert level from yellow, its current state, to orange. (The scale begins at green – no danger – and ends at red for an eruption.)
Nyiragongo last erupted in January 2002 causing at least 45 deaths and engulfing the town of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in lava and forcing an estimated 400,000 people to flee into Rwanda.
Gisenyi and Goma are all but the same conurbation, divided only by the international border. Nyiragongo, one of three volcanoes in the world containing a permanent lake of molten lava, towers over them equally.
In April the Congolese volcanologists who now monitor it round the clock noticed the temperature on the small neighbouring mountain of Mugara had shot up to more than 70C from its normal range of 28–29C.
It fell again, to their relief, and still only the yellow-alert flag flies outside the headquarters of the RRC’s district headquarters in Gisenyi and at other key points around the two towns.
But what’s alarming everyone in Rubavu is that the scientists have picked up other signs of a possible eruption, including a widening of a key ground fissure and some indicative lava movement inside the crater.
What may be unusual about this particular “disaster risk” is the level of cooperation between scientists, the authorities, the police, and humanitarian agencies like UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
This informal, but very real, partnership was inspired and is still is coordinated by the RRC.
Jean-Bosco Rukirande Musana, 53, the society’s coordinator for Rwanda’s Western province, explains that his region faces what he calls “a big package” of disaster risks, including cholera on the shores of Lake Kivu, landslides and high winds.
“But the biggest risk is the volcano.”
Everyone in both Goma and Gisenyi remembers the horror stories from 2002 and the “swarm” of earthquakes that followed the eruption, destroying many houses and schools on both sides of the border: the lava flow rolling down the slopes at about 40 kph – faster than you can drive on the unmade local roads; the small group of people who were trapped on high ground by lava flow around them and were baked alive.
“Against lava,” says Bosco, as he’s universally known, “there’s no defence.”
He adds, however, that the volcanogists “keep us posted day by day”, and their information is shared among all the agencies involved in the partnership, including the DRC Red Cross, on a Movement-wide, cross-border, interdisciplinary basis.
The Nyiragongo watch must rank as one of the most effective scientific-humanitarian partnerships anywhere in the world.
But if the volcano does erupt again soon – and people who live close enough to watch its crater glow red in the distance at night fear it will – neither Goma nor Gisenyi is likely to be taken by surprise.
Jimmy Leonard Kubwimana, 23, RRC Rubavu district youth president, highlights the importance of cross-border Red Cross cooperation for a “risk” that will, initially at least, be a refugee crisis.
“We have joint meetings with DRC volunteers,” he says, “and we share scenarios.”
Celestine Kasereka, a geophysicist with the Observatoire Volcanogique de Goma, is one of the scientists whose job it is to climb regularly to the rim of the crater and look inside.
“We have been working with the Red Cross for eight years,” he says, adding that “disasters have no frontiers.”
His colleague Honoré Ciraba says DRC volcanologists have worked hard to map all the tell-tale fissures accurately, and he recalls a key detail about the 1977 and 2002 eruption that only heightens the general state of nervousness on the Rwandan side.
In neither case did the lava spill from the crater, instead bursting out of the volcano’s cracked sides. In lava terms, Gisenyi always thought of itself as downstream from Goma, but this might now have changed.
From the maps, says Ciraba, “we can see clearly that the risk is shared: lava may emerge near either Gisenyi or Goma”.
Bosco has lived with the continuous yellow alert for the best part of a decade now. “Three months after the 2002 eruption the lava lake was back,” he recalls.
“I’d been hoping for a green alert, but it didn’t happen.”
Nyiragongo never stops breathing fire. Everyone here asks: when next it will roar?
Additional reporting by Angelique Murungi, RRC senior officer for risk reduction.