Comoros: Between the devil and the deep blue sea

News and Press Release
Originally published
MORONI, 8 December 2008 (IRIN) - Rehabilitating a neighbourhood bully is never an easy task, especially if it is a 2,360m active volcanic system that covers nearly two-thirds of Grand Comore, the Comoros archipelago's largest and most developed island.

The volcano, Mount Karthala, flexed its muscles in 2005, spewing ash across most of Grande Comore and instilling a sense of foreboding in its 300,000 residents.

Relatively young at about 130,000 years old, it is the only active volcano in the three-island nation, although the archipelago was created by volcanic activity.

Karthala's behaviour has changed since 1995; before, volcanic activity occurred only about once every decade, but these days it is becoming an almost annual occurrence, with differing degrees of severity.

The 2005 eruption was not only a major health risk - inconclusive studies suggest that two days of volcanic dust inhalation is equivalent to a 30-year smoking habit - but highlighted the island's unpreparedness for dealing with disaster.

A recent conference organised by the Government of Comoros and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Grande Comore's capital, Moroni, which drew some of the world's foremost specialists on volcanoes, set out to develop a holistic blueprint for disaster response and also attempted to highlight any silver lining that living adjacent to an active volcano might have.

It is a tough sell trying to convince residents that there are benefits to residing on the cusp of oblivion, and members of the public attending the conference made it plain that Karthala was an unwelcome feature; one person even asked whether it could not be doused with seawater, much like snuffing out a candle?

Patrick Bachelery, a conference delegate and volcanologist based at the Department of Earth Sciences at the Université de la Réunion, on the French island of Reunion, east of Madagascar, provided a sobering response. Sea water seeping into the Krakatoa volcanic system was thought to have caused the world's biggest modern eruption in 1883, equivalent to 200 megatons of high explosives, or 13,000 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

"In countries where there are volcanoes we have the same problem of fear; with Karthala there are many myths around the volcano and it will take a long time to change these perceptions. The best way is through education, from primary school through to university education," Bachelery told IRIN.

The story of the earth

"A volcano is the crucible for all the functioning and the story of the earth. A volcano can explain the formation of the atmosphere and the formation of other planets, and there are many things that can be learned from it," he said.

"If a child is educated about a volcano, the child can come home from the school and explain to his parents the functioning of a volcano. It is a good thing."

Bachelery's fascination with Karthala began 20 years ago. He lives on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, an overseas department of France, where there is another active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace).

With French Government funding, Bachelery established the Karthala Volcano Observatory, which monitors and researches the volcano and also provides an early warning system for its activities. Since 2007, UNDP has become a major funder of the observatory.

Karthala, like Piton de la Fournaise, is classed as a Hawaiian-type volcano, although Karthala's relative youth means that Grand Comore is criss-crossed with fissures, making for unpredictable lava flows.

About four kilometres of Karthala's six-kilometre volcanic system is submerged, while the remaining 2,360m rises steeply from the sea. Despite 20 years of observation, dogged by funding shortages, it has revealed few of its secrets.

Bachelery told the conference that as yet "we do not understand magma transfers [there have been too few eruptions during the 20-year study period] and we are not sufficiently equipped to predict eruptions."

Information gaps needed to be addressed, such as activity in the submerged part of the volcanic system, the security of residents and the risk of tsunamis, but all this required "a lot of funding," he said.

Reunion has a well developed disaster preparedness plan in place for its 800,000 residents, even though, unlike Karthala, the Piton de la Fournaise is remote and without any human settlements on its slopes.

Jean-Claude Gaillard, of the Université Joseph Fourrier in Grenoble, France, presenting a paper on reducing the risks of volcanoes, said the victims of disaster were usually "victims of other things, such as hunger, social marginalisation and economics".

He said it was the poor who were most vulnerable, because land on the slopes of volcanoes was generally cheaper, and the dangers of volcanic activity were not as immediate as the threats of poverty, such as hunger, disease and landlessness.

The risks presented by volcanoes are seldom predictable. Gari Mayberry, of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which is part of USAID, said nine percent of the world's population lived 100km or less from the world's 1,500 potentially active volcanoes.

The first volcanic eruption in 150 years of Columbia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano, known as The Sleeping Lion, killed about 23,000 people in the town of Armero in 1985, becoming the second deadliest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, although there was relatively little volcanic activity.

Armero lies more than 50km from the volcano, giving the 27,000 residents a false sense of security. However, the lava flow melted the snow cap on the summit, creating a lahar (mudflow) that hurtled down the valley into the town.

Known threats

Hamid Soule, a volcanologist at the Karthala Observatory in Moroni, told the conference that the 2005 eruption illustrated the difficulties of predicting volcanic activity.

The impending scale of the 2005 eruption, which dumped ash up to five metres deep on the island and contaminated scarce water supplies, was only realized two hours before the event.

Karthala's known threats, Soule said, were lava flows, to which Moroni and its airport were vulnerable, ash, poisonous gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, mudslides, earthquakes and - "not very probable, but possible" - that part of the mountain would split off and fall into the sea, resulting in tsunamis.

In the wake of the 2005 eruption, the government formed the Centre des Operations de Secours et de la Protection Civile (COSEP), a response network comprising the Karthala Volcano Observatory, the security services, health services and aid agencies.

Opia Kumah, the UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, told IRIN that "a lot more needs to be done, especially on the communication front, so people know exactly what to do in case of an eruption, but we are not there yet."

Kumah said the period ahead of the Karthala conference, the largest the islands have hosted, was used to "sensitise" the population to the risks of the volcano, "as the most important tool for disaster preparedness and response is knowledge -knowing what to do and what to expect - but that is probably the weakest link so far." Vibrant community radio and television

programming was one source to tap, as well as religious institutions.

"The island's network of mosques is a fantastic communication channel, as most people get their information there and it is important to get the imams [religious community leaders] on our side, as they are an authoritative and credible voice within communities," he said. The Red Crescent already uses the mosque system to disseminate information.

Is there a silver lining?

Grand Comore's residents feel they are literally between the devil and the deep blue sea. Karthala is blamed for many ills, from the hot sticky climate to the fouling of drinking water, and any suggestion that it might improve lives is met with disbelief.

At the opening of the conference, Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi quipped - referring to the often fraught relations with the archipelago's former colonial power - that "France may be a nuclear power, but the Comoros can be a volcanic power."

About 46 percent of the 600,000 population have access to electricity, derived from aging and unreliable diesel turbines producing about 9.3MW, with costs being highly vulnerable to volatile oil prices.

Initial investigations by the Kenya Electricity Generating Company into the possibility of producing electricity using geothermal technology on Grand Comore were very encouraging, the company's chief geologist, Geoffrey Muchemi, told the conference.

Geothermal power is energy generated by heat stored in the earth and extracted from sources like magma, hot water or steam, the decay of uranium, potassium or thorium, which can be used to run turbines and thereby produce electricity.

About 20 countries in the world use "clean" geothermal energy. Iceland, one of the leading producers, obtains 17 percent of its power requirement from this source.

A nine-day exploratory mission on the slopes of Karthala and the island's two dormant volcanoes, Grille and Grotto, found a huge reservoir of water heated to a temperature of 300C at a depth of only about 200m. Such a source of geothermal power could generate a massive surplus of electricity and contribute to the islands' development.

Steve Hirsch, of the US-based private company, Geothermal Development Associates, which has installed geothermal plants worldwide, told the conference that heat sources were often found at shallow depths on volcanic islands, reducing expensive drilling costs.

The advantages of geothermal power generation were "clean" power, reduced reliance on fossil fuels, reduction of electricity prices by about 50 percent, and that the plant could be expanded on a modular basis as demand increased.

The disadvantages were high capital costs, although these would be more than recovered over the roughly 30-year lifespan of a plant, and that it provided baseload power supply only, so other sources of power were required during peak electricity demand.


Electrical power is crucial to developing the islands as a tourism destination. The Comoros, which has suffered more than 20 successful and unsuccessful coups and secession attempts, has drifted far behind neighbouring Mozambique, on the African continent, and the much larger island of Madagascar in attracting tourists.

Although the tourism infrastructure in Comoros requires radical redress, few venues accept credit cards, and it has not begun to tackle refuse collection, other than using the streets as rubbish dumps, its potential is beyond doubt.

Comoros has a greater variety of indigenous species of birds than the Seychelles, which is widely regarded as an ornithologist's paradise, and Karthala provides an eco-tourism experience not readily available from its neighbours, or many other places in the world.