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Underpaid and under fire: The risky business of monitoring Congo’s volatile volcano

‘We have all old machines, all old equipment.’

Several people stand on the balcony of the The Goma Volcano Observatory.
The Goma Volcano Observatory is responsible for monitoring the volatile Mount Nyiragongo, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people when it erupted in May. (Sophie Neiman/TNH)

Funding challenges and security threats are hampering the monitoring of one of the world’s most volatile volcanoes – the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo – even after a May eruption cost dozens of lives and left tens of thousands of people living in displacement camps.

Money is so short at the Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO) that staff members complained of sometimes lacking fuel for field trips, having computers that can’t process hefty data sets, and wearing faulty masks that don’t protect them from gases spewed out by Mount Nyiragongo.

  • At a glance: A deadly eruption and the risks that remain

  • Funding cuts at the Goma Volcano Observatory hampered monitoring efforts ahead of a May eruption that left tens of thousands of people homeless.
  • The Congolese government has provided additional support to the observatory since the eruption but funding problems persist.
  • Congolese volcanologists face security threats and health risks while doing poorly-compensated work.
  • Mount Nyiragongo remains a major risk to residents of Goma, an eastern city of 1.5 million people.

GVO researchers say they work in risky conditions with limited security support. The monitoring sites where they travel to collect data are located in remote places in Virunga National Park, a wildlife sanctuary that is also home to a patchwork of armed groups. Staff members have been shot and wounded while on duty.

“We could predict [eruptions] if we had funding and if we had security in Virunga,” Honoré Ciraba, a senior scientist at the GVO, told The New Humanitarian earlier this month.

GVO researchers say their problems need addressing before disaster strikes again: Mount Nyiragongo is considered dangerous because of its fast-flowing lava and its proximity to Goma, an eastern Congolese city of 1.5 million people. Previous eruptions in 1977 and 2002 claimed hundreds of lives on each occasion.

The volcano also sits adjacent to Lake Kivu, a body of water between Congo and Rwanda that contains vast amounts of toxic gas. Scientists say the gas could suffocate lakeside residents – an event known as a limnic eruption – if disturbed by an earthquake or a volcanic event

“The population is still vulnerable to the volcanic risks posed by Mount Nyiragongo,” said Abel Minani, a researcher at the GVO, which is a state institution that falls under Congo’s Ministry of Scientific Research and Technological Innovation.

Founded in 1986, the GVO was in a bad state before the May eruption. The World Bank decided not to renew a $1.8 million programme amid corruption allegations at the observatory, leaving it unable to pay internet bills, even as its staff warned of increased volcanic activity.

After the eruption – which temporarily displaced 450,000 people – Congo’s government began topping up the wages of GVO staff, according to Adalbert Muhindo, the observatory’s director. He hopes a new seismology laboratory will soon be built, and that an upcoming international volcanology conference will bring new partnerships and support to the observatory.

But interviews with GVO researchers in the aftermath of the eruption indicate that funding problems persist. And few staff members expect the recent salary supplements to last given the government’s long-standing failure to properly fund the observatory. Officials at Congo’s scientific ministry did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

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The photo shows several tents made from scraps of fabric
Sophie Neiman/TNH
Congolese displaced by Mount Nyiragongo were living in tents made of scraps of cloth earlier this year. Some aid officials said the disaster was a low priority compared to other crises in the country.

Residents displaced by the volcano are, meanwhile, struggling to rebuild their lives. Though some have received support since the eruption, relief groups generally consider the crisis a low priority compared to other issues affecting eastern Congo, where more than a million people have been displaced in 2021.

Jean de Dieu Mbasa lost his home in May, and with it the money to send his son to school. For a few dollars, he shifts heavy stones on the now-cooled lava to mark where people's houses once stood. He uses torn socks over his hands to protect them from the heat.

“We lost many things because there was no warning [that the volcano would erupt],” he told The New Humanitarian.

Risky work, poorly rewarded

Based in an office overlooking a dusty football pitch in Goma, the GVO is responsible for researching Mount Nyiragongo as well as its sister volcano, Mount Nyamuragira, which has been especially active in recent days.

It is a Herculean job: Equipment regularly gets looted, destroyed in lightning strikes, or tangled in tropical vegetation, while patchy internet and bumpy dirt roads create other headaches.

Despite a lack of resources, the observatory predicted the 2002 Mount Nyiragongo eruption, which flattened around 15 percent of Goma and triggered a major humanitarian crisis – in part because local authorities didn’t heed the GVO’s warnings.

International aid was provided for reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2002 disaster. And greater support was extended to the GVO in the form of new equipment and staff training, various UN programmes, and long-standing international scientific research partnerships.

Still, international funding dwindled as the memory of what happened in 2002 receded among foreign donors. And recent corruption allegations at the observatory put off donors, according to UN officials in Congo and members of the GVO.

Awareness of the danger posed by Mount Nyiragongo also waned over the years among Goma’s population. Some residents settled in villages just a few kilometres from the volcano, in areas identified as high-risk.

Warning panels installed in Goma to alert residents to the fluctuating danger posed by the volcano were ignored, or in some cases used for local advertising, according to recent research.

observatory-worker-lava.jpg

Volcanologists walk across hardened lava in Goma.
Sophie Neiman/TNH
Volcanologists walk across hardened lava in Goma. They were measuring the width of new fissures that had cracked open in the earth in May.

Since the May eruption, additional equipment has been sent to the observatory and monitoring measures have been stepped up, according to Muhindo, who travelled to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, in recent months to lobby the government for more support.

But the current funding from the government doesn’t cover the GVO’s full research needs, Célestin Kasereka Mahinda, the observatory’s scientific director, told The New Humanitarian during an interview in August at his office in Goma.

Mahinda said machines and equipment need replacing, GVO staff members need training – some of them abroad – and more awareness-raising needs to be done for Goma’s population.

In October, one researcher said the institute didn’t have enough funds to afford a drone to take high-resolution photos of the May eruption site, while in July staff said the observatory was struggling to raise money for a research trip to the volcano summit.

Several GVO researchers who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they were earning as little as 40 dollars per month and have often paid out of their own pockets to travel large distances to collect data. Some have taken side jobs to make ends meet.

The volcanologists have also faced health risks as a consequence of their work. Charles Balagizi, a GVO scientist, said he had not been able to replace the filters in his gas mask – given to him by the US Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) in 2019 – for the past two years. His lungs have suffered as a result, doctors told him recently.

The researchers said their salaries don’t reflect the importance of their mission, nor the challenges they face when travelling to remote places – challenges The New Humanitarian saw first hand on field trips with the GVO in July and August.

On one mission in July, researchers balanced on hardened lava rocks examining the width of new fissures that had cracked open in the earth in May. The trip took the team though Virunga National Park, on a road known for its ambush risk.

The next month scientists drove down dirt roads outside of Goma to collect crucial seismic data, passing areas where carbon dioxide emitted by the volcano can suffocate children and animals. A dead bird lying on the ground was said to be the latest victim.

The monitoring efforts require constant commitment, said Dario Tedesco, an Italian volcanologist who has dedicated his life to studying Mount Nyiragongo. “You need to do it every day, every single hour of the day,” he told The New Humanitarian.

Funding cuts and corruption concerns

Volcanologists argue that there was no clear precursor event that could have predicted the May eruption, even though signs of increased volcanic activity were present in the months before.

Still, the World Bank’s decision not to renew a programme that ended in October 2020 left the GVO lacking money to do crucial field missions, said Ciraba, the senior scientist. After the internet was cut, the institute also lost access to real time data, he added.

The internet was eventually restored in April thanks to a contribution from VDAP. But a seven-month gap left volcanologists missing crucial details about volcanic activity at Mount Nyiragongo.

The World Bank decision came amid allegations of embezzlement at the GVO, though the Bank said it could not corroborate those claims. Instead, it said the decision was based on the institution’s “weakness” in implementing grants.

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Men shovel gravel made from hardened lava rocks into trucks in Goma in the hope of earning a few dollars.
Sophie Neiman/TNH
Men shovel gravel made from hardened lava rocks into trucks in Goma in the hope of earning a few dollars. The May eruption destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of people.

In an emailed statement to The New Humanitarian, a World Bank spokesperson said that – on completion of the grant – the organisation had emphasised to the Congolese government the importance of giving the GVO resources to cover its operational costs.

But the government appears not to have plugged the gap, while other donors failed to step forward, said Omar Aboud, who previously led the Goma operation of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Congo, known by its French acronym MONUSCO. 

Despite joint advocacy efforts by MONUSCO and the GVO, Aboud said donors lacked funding “for this kind of unexpected and unplanned support” and were put off by the corruption allegations. 

Aboud and other MONUSCO officials said the mission provided support to the GVO both before and after the May eruption. This includes helicopter flights to Mount Nyiragongo and the facilitation of outreach efforts to donors and diplomats.

But Aboud said further support to the GVO “would be too technical and scientific for a peacekeeping mission… would require a very high budget that MONUSCO does not have, and would fall way beyond our mandate”.

The GVO also receives support from a group of international scientific partner organisations. But funding for these projects is usually focused on scientific objectives rather than the long-term operating costs of the observatory.

Mahinda, the scientific director, said volcanic eruptions are natural phenomena that can’t be stopped, but added: “if we had proper materials and good financial treatment here... maybe we could have reduced the costs we saw during the eruption.”

The costs were particularly high for Nyabatezi Subirayo, a Goma resident who was separated from one of her children while managing to escape the eruption. “If there had been a warning, I would not have lost my child,” she said in July from a displacement camp.

‘Evil winds’ and a limnic eruption

The threat posed by Mount Nyiragongo has increased since the eruption. Fresh fractures have opened in the ground that “could be gates for new lava flows reaching Goma”, said the GVO’s Balagizi.

Balagizi said the danger of a limnic eruption will persist as long as there is an active rift that can generate earthquakes capable of destabilising Lake Kivu, and as long as there are active volcanoes that can produce eruptive vents within the lake or empty hot lava into its depths.

The pockets of carbon dioxide emitted by the volcano – referred to as Mazuku, or evil wind – pose another hazard to human health, as do plumes of sulphur dioxide, which can cause acid rain and contaminate drinking water.

While various initiatives seek to raise awareness of the risks associated with Mount Nyiragongo – teachers in Goma use board games to help students know what to do in an emergency, for example – GVO scientists say more needs to be done. 

“People have to watch and listen to understand what the scientists are teaching,” said Muhindo, the GVO director. “They must also avoid building infrastructure in places where there are lava flows.”

Aboud, the former MONUSCO official, said risks will remain no matter how much funding is forthcoming. “If volcanoes are unpredictable, and the lava could take… half an hour to reach the city, how much can money really help?” he said, adding: “The population [is] squeezed between the volcano and the lake, and there are very few escape routes.”

Muhindo, however, is optimistic that the threats posed by Mount Nyiragongo can be properly managed by the observatory – should it be appropriately funded. “Everybody is paying attention to GVO [after the eruption],” he said. “Very soon, things will change.” 

With local reporting and research from an individual whose name is being withheld due to security concerns.

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