Comoros: Glowing Karthala puts authorities on alert

JOHANNESBURG, 30 May 2006 (IRIN) - On Grande Comoro, largest of the three islands in Indian Ocean archipelago, Mount Karthala is colouring the sky red as volcanic activity continues. Initial fears of a full-blown eruption and lava flow have calmed, but authorities remain on the alert.

The 300,000 people on the island have been admiring the glow above the crater in the night sky since Sunday, but have stayed put.

Piet Paxton, a spokesperson for the African Union Mission for Support to the Elections in the Comoros (AMISEC), told IRIN, "It is a boiling pot up there - a lava lake is forming but it is confined within the crater."

AMISEC, which assisted in the smooth running of the recent presidential poll, took specialists from the Karthala Volcano Observatory and scientists from the University of La Réunion, a French possession in the Indian Ocean, on a reconnaissance flight over the crater on Monday morning.

Based on their observations, the team suggested two possible scenarios for further volcanic activity: the fountain of lava could run until it was exhausted and cool down inside the crater, or the lava lake might drain from the crater, possibly coming into contact with ground water and causing an explosion that would spew ash and volcanic debris.

According to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), "authorities have activated the national emergency response preparedness plan" and set up an emergency task force that includes "government departments, United Nations agencies and the Comoros Red Crescent Society".

The population is being kept abreast of developments through the media and there are vehicles on standby to evacuate people, should the need arise, the OCHA report said.

The renewed volcanic activity has not threatened people's lives. "For now, things are still very calm," the UN Resident Coordinator in Comoros, Giuseppina Mazza, told IRIN.

Karthala, which forms most of the landmass of Grande Comoro and is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world, has erupted, on average, every eleven years in the last 200. It erupted twice in 2005, affecting 40,000 in April and 175,000 people in November.

After the last eruption, volcanic dust and debris covered extensive areas of the island, while toxic volcanic ash contaminated water supplies, raising concerns about the health of people and livestock, and its effect on agriculture in the polluted area.