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Swiss government offers alarm system for volcanic eruptions near Goma

[DRC] Goma volcano.
Lave écoulée dans Goma (WHO)

The Swiss government has offered to provide and install an alarm system in the city of Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, to warn residents of significant volcanic activity in the region.

The proposal - which the Goma Volcanic Observatory, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the government of North Kivu Province are considering, calls for three or four powerful sirens to be installed in strategic locations throughout the city.

The alarm system would be solar-powered and radio-operated, with the central control system located in the offices of the observatory.

While the siren system would be capable of emitting up to five different tones, perhaps to indicate various alert levels; some feel that it would be best if only one tone is used, when the observatory believes an eruption to be imminent.

"We have to keep it as simple as possible in order to avoid confusion," said Belgian volcanologist Jacques Durieux, who has been studying Nyiragongo since the 1960s.

The eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in mid-January sent three major flows of lava toward Goma, one of which swallowed up the central business district. Between 50 and 100 people were killed during the eruption, while another 60 were killed when a petrol station exploded.

A neighbouring volcano, Mt. Nyamuragira, is also active. However, as it is located in the Virunga nature reserve it has not, so far, posed a major threat to human populations.

Most of the observatory's work, including logistical support, monitoring equipment, and local staff salaries has been funded by the US government, through its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and managed by Save the Children. A team of international volcanologists and a series of scientific studies have been funded by a number of governments through OCHA. The UN Mission in the DRC, a peacekeeping operation known as MONUC, provides logistical support, including helicopter surveillance of the volcanoes.

In a related development, a consultant from the Conseil d'Europe is helping to complete the final phase of contingency planning in the event of another volcanic eruption, which will focus on evacuation procedures and capacity building.

The consultant, Redouane Belayachi, told IRIN that among his recommendations would be the creation of a school of civilian protection, which would train local populations in emergency response and management; the promotion of cooperation between Congolese and Rwandan authorities, particularly with regard to freedom of cross-border movement in the event of an eruption; and a public education campaign, via radio, schools and the workplace, in an effort to create what Belayachi termed a "culture of volcanic risk appreciation". This would, he said, enable local populations to be better informed about the dangers posed by Nyiragongo and hopefully be less panicked during periods of increased volcanic activity.

The entire contingency plan is due to be completed by year-end.

Goma, which had a population of only about 25,000 in the 1970s, is now home to an estimated 400,000 people, due largely to the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda and years of instability throughout eastern DRC.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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