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Security Brief: EMH2 Week of May 17, 2021

Week of Monday, May 17, 2021 | Issue 12

Sam Shames, Emergency Management, Health, and Hazards (EMH2) Team


Nyiragongo Volcano[1]


Date: May 22, 2021

Location: Mount Nyiragongo, Goma, North Kivu District, Democratic Republic of Congo

Parties involved: Residents of Goma; Sake; Buhene; Kibati; Kibumba; and Rwandan border towns

The event: One of the most active volcanoes in Africa at Mount Nyiragongo erupted late on Saturday, May 22. The last eruption in 2002 left 100,000 residents of Goma, a city about 6 miles north of the volcano with nearly 2 million people, homeless as the lava engulfed parts of the town and airport. Fearing a similar situation, thousands of residents began to flee the region, only to learn that the lava flow had halted right before hitting the town. It is believed that one major highway in the North Kivu Province was compromised, and 15 are dead, mainly from accidents occurring while fleeing.[2] There are also fears that many children are missing after being separated from their families.[3] In response to the incident, emergency officials activated an evacuation plan, although many residents had already fled, with about 5,000 of those crossing the Rwandan border. The United Nations (UN) is evaluating the situation and believes that Goma will ultimately be spared.


The implications:

  • Although the eruption did not majorly impact the infrastructure in Goma, the destruction of one of Goma’s main highways will make it difficult for those who fled to return to their homes. Since some of the areas surrounding Congo are under threat from various armed groups, evacuees could put themselves in danger if they enter these regions. For those who do return home, power outages and disruptions to the water supply will make it difficult for them to return to normal life, and the town may require humanitarian assistance to recover.

  • One of the biggest concerns is disruptions to the water supply. This may spread Cholera, which is endemic in Goma. Since their only source of water is from Lake Kivu, volcanic eruptions that impact the lake can cause water temperatures to rise, increasing the risk of bacterial growth. To prevent disease spread, residents should wait until humanitarian assistance samples and purifies the water. Lack of access to clean water will compromise personal hygiene, which could potentially worsen the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. Additionally, water insecurity oftentimes interferes with women and children’s daily activities, leading to poor health outcomes.

  • While it is not believed that COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites were compromised, health officials were already facing difficulty in Goma’s vaccine rollout due to high levels of vaccine hesitancy.[4] Psychological distress from fleeing will likely further delay vaccine distribution as individuals take time to return to their homes, reunite with their families, and deal with any adverse impacts from the incident. Since Congo has already had to re-distribute their vaccine donations due to expiration concerns, current stocks may need to be re-distributed to other regions or countries, especially considering power outages may have accelerated spoilage. However, this might not be possible as the main highway out of Goma is blocked and emergency officials are occupied with helping residents recover. Additionally, delays in vaccine rollout or lack of receiving a second dose of the vaccine could cause an increase in COVID-19 cases, especially since many will be more focused on securing their basic needs in the aftermath of the incident.

  • Due to the destructive nature of the volcano’s prior eruption in 2002, many residents panicked and scrambled to flee the region at the first sign of danger. Although the death count is low, a majority of deaths were caused by accidents resulting from this panic fleeing. Additionally, evacuees went to various locations in Rwanda, to the top of Mount Goma, to Lake Kivu, and north toward Beni, leaving residents dispersed throughout the region. Considering one of the main roads in and out of Goma is blocked, it may be difficult for authorities to reunite families who may have fled to different locations. Authorities also seemed extremely unprepared for an eruption despite warnings from seismologists concerning an incoming eruption and reports on May 10, 2021, showing increased seismic activity at Mount Nyiragongo.[5] When the volcano did erupt, there was no official announcement or evacuation plan until most had already fled. This highlights the need for improved preparation for potential eruptions, including emergency evacuation plans so that recovery is manageable and resources can be used effectively.

  • With nearly 5,000 people crossing the border into Rwanda at one of the busiest crossings, there is concern the large influx of people will compromise pandemic control measures. It will be difficult to test and quarantine these individuals, increasing the chances for the spread of disease, leading to a potential outbreak. Additionally, the deadly Indian Variant has been detected in neighboring Uganda and may be present in Rwanda or Congo. Increased movement between these regions paired with crowding at the border will likely cause case numbers to rise. If the Indian Variant is detected in these border regions, its behavior in India and Bangladesh suggests that there will be a rapid increase in deaths.

[1]Volcano Nyiragongo - Virunga National Park” by MONUSCO, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Congo’s Nyiragongo volcano erupts, causing thousands to flee; at least 15 dead, Washington Post, May 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/22/congo-volcano-eruption-nyiragongo/

[3] DR Congo: More than 170 children feared missing following volcanic eruption in Goma, UN News, May 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/05/1092582

[4] Covid: DR Congo in race against time to vaccinate people, BBC, May 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-57028747

[5] Mount Nyiragongo: DR Congo residents flee as volcano erupts, BBC, May 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-57215690



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