Memories with the volcanoes of Congo
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was a former colony of Belgium from 1908 tillits independence in 1960.That time it used to be known as Belgian Congo. Goma is the capital of North Kivu province in the eastern DRC.
The city is wedged between Virunga National Park towards north east and Lake Kivu towards south. From ancient time this region is prone to hazards like volcanic and limnic eruptions due to presence of numerous volcanoes. Virunga is Africa's oldest national park. It was formerly named Albert National Park.
This park stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the south to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north along eastern DRC. The park was established in 1925. It is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. The park is known for its exceptional biodiversity, containing bird, mammal and reptile species on the continent of Africa. Both savanna and forest elephants, chimpanzees, low land gorillas, okapi, giraffes, African buffalo and many endemic birds can still be found in Virunga.
Mount Nyiragongo is an active and prominent stratovolcano located inside Virunga National Park with an elevation of 3,470 m (meter).
This volcano is situated around 20 km (kilometer) north of Goma city. Since 1882, the volcano erupted at least 34 times. Its main crater is about 2 km wide and contains world's largest lava lake. It contains constantly circulating molten lava of tremendous heat. Nyiragongo has very special type of fluid lava resulting in fast run during eruption. During the eruption of 2002, stream of lava coated Goma City in a layer of volcanic rock. Much of the city is still covered by this rubble. Lava even covered the northern end of Goma International Airport runway. About 147 people died then. Many buildings and roads were destroyed.
During my stay in Goma in 2016, I could observe this volcano very closely. I used to reside at a place named Munigi, which was around 10 km south of this volcano. Still evidence of eruption is projected by marks of lava flow, Presence of Igneous rock and volcanic ashes in surrounding places. Several times I had to fly either by fixed wing aircraft or helicopter from Goma Airport on duty. Maximum of these flights used to cross over Nyiragongo and Virunga Reserve Forest.
From top it seemed that dense smoke cluttered over Nyiragongo. Besides, along the southern edge of Virunga Forest a road ran from Goma at south to Kiwanja towards north east. Many a times during my journey along this road of lava rock I could pore over the forest and the volcano. At night while the sky remains clear its red blazing mouth can be seen from far away. I enjoyed this mind-blowing amazing glow. During day also anyone can see smoke emitting from its mouth from a long distance.
Nyramuragira, which lies about 20 km northwards of Nyiragongo is another active volcano located inside Virunga national park. Nyamuragira emitted lava fountains which traveled many km into the scarcely populated area of tropical forest and farmland surrounding it. The last major eruption of Nyamuragira occurred on 6 November 2011.Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira are together responsible for many historical volcanic eruptions in this region. They are also surrounded by hundreds of small volcanic cinder cones from flank eruptions. Their fluid lava has low viscosity with low silica content and high content of alkali feldspar minerals.
In Virunga volcanic field few major and inactivevolcanoes those lie to the east of Nyiragongo are Mikeno, Karisimbi, Visoke, Muside, Sabinyo, Gahinga and Muhavura. two older stratovolcanoes namely Baruta and Shaheru, partially overlapped by Nyiragongo. The tallest peak of the Virunga Range is Mount Karisimbi. Besides, many small dead volcanoes can be seen in this region.
But life, like the bubbling volcano, is unpredictable in eastern Congo. Millions of people reside here in tensed state as volcanic eruption may begin anytime. Nyiragongo's proximity to heavily populated areas increases its potential for causing a natural disaster. Moreover, this place is subjected to constant earthquakes. Again, the volcanoes emit hazardous chemicals in the nature. Acid rains and tephra falls have plagued crops and urban zones in the area. So, this zone is a dangerous geologic location in Africa for any living being.
At present the volcano is monitored by a team of scientists at the Goma Volcanic Observatory round the clock. They observe closely this volcano by flying regularly over this volcano. They predict, all possibilities are there for a sudden eruption at any time. They marked few small craters beside the opening mouth as well.
Many trekkers climb Nyiragongo to get a close view of the lava lake. Temperature at the summit remains very cold at night. Protection against rain and cold weather is must for climbers.
Depending on the fitness of each person, it takes around 5 hours to reach top of Mount Nyiragongo by hiking. Climbers ascend from Kibati Station at early morning and typically descend the volcano the next morning. There are few small shelters available at summit for night stay. Sleeping beside an active volcano is definitely a thrilling experience. Climbers can arrange Porters if needed at the Kibati station. Attempting to climb the volcano is also dangerous, as the crater walls can rupture any time.
Adjacent Lake Kivu which sits on the border between DRC and Rwanda is also adversely affected by the continuous volcanic activities in the region. Its water is charged with carbon dioxide from vents deep in the lake and methane from decomposing vegetation. Carbon dioxide toxicity is known locally as 'mazuku'. The volcanoes and lakes have deep impact on life style. Lake Kivu is the home to varieties of fish like barb, catfish, tilapia and cichlids. But, due to water condition they are risky to eat. It is advised not to swim in this lake. Volcanic gas discharge is also observed in Lake Edward, located northwards.
Sometimes toxic gas discharge had violent action like gas explosion that destroyed concrete pavements. Locals frequently saw dead fish, discoloured water, and bubbling water. Often they felt rotten egg smells causing breathing difficulties. Several times there was devastating cholera outbreak in this area due to the total reliance of the population on Lake Kivu as the only source of drinking water.
Besides volcanoes, Virunga boasts forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains. Currently, many tourists visit the southern sector of Virunga National Park every year to admire the gorillas. Mountain gorilla trekking safaris to Virunga are the most popular of tourism activities. The national park was founded primarily to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests but they are now rare.
This Park offers a wide range of accommodation ranging from budget, midrange to luxury suits. Presently Seismic tests confirmed the presence of oil here. Virunga is the only source of charcoal for Rwanda. The tree trunks are covered by mud and set on fire to prepare Charcoal. In recent years, poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population.
Abandoned planes are a common site at nearby Goma Airport. Planes are left due to wars and volcanic eruptions over the past two decades have become a playground for street children. Some parts of these planes are still sold on the streets of Goma.
While visiting, I also marked lava flow of volcano blocked the planes. It has become a graveyard of old aircraft. I found in the thrill of the moment children were enjoying hopping, twisting and upside down and were undeniably joyful. The poverty is so wrenching that parents are unable to provide food or ensure basic needs of these children. Even Sometimes, boys and girls are seized from their homes to fight in rebellions.
Apart from these, at present there have been a series of methane extraction projects in Lake Kivu. The natural gases will be used to produce electricity. The lava rocks and volcanic ashes are used in various structural construction works. The chemical makeup of volcanic soil becomes very fertile for lucrative farming after few years of eruption. Thereby agricultural productivity is huge in the neighbouring areas.
Compiling everything life in this region is full of Challenges. However, I was fortunate to complete my memorable tour of duties safely.
Author Mohammad Mahmudur Rahman Niaz is a civil engineer, serving in Bangladesh Army