DR Congo + 1 more

Volcano erupts in Goma, DRC

Mount Nyiragongo, which lies some 10 kilometres (six miles) north of Goma, erupted at 5.00 am Thursday 17 January and the lava began its destructive course towards the town of Goma destroying villages on its way. Large parts of Goma, a city of 400,000, were reported on fire, as lava flowed. It cut a swathe 60 metres wide through the centre of the city and the ensuing fires burned down buildings up to 40 metres on either side. No accurate information on casualties is available at this stage. The compounds of the World Health Organization, Save the Children, and other non-governmental organizations were destroyed.
It was the first eruption of Mount Nyiragongo since 1977, when lava flows killed almost 2,000 people in less than half an hour.

The volcano, situated in Democratic Republic of Congo near the border with Rwanda, is known as one of Africa's most active volcanoes. The last activity started in June 1994. On 4 January 2002, an earthquake measuring 4.8 on the Richter scale struck the area near the volcano.

The resulting lava flows from the eruption are coming not from its summit but from cracks on three of its flanks, producing three molten rivers. One of these rivers later split into two fingers, one heading towards the airport and the other towards northern residential areas.

The lava poured down the slopes through the town and into Lake Kivu that straddles the Rwanda-Congo border.

A large crowd began leaving in late afternoon. Up to two-thirds of Goma's population fled to the town of Gisenyi, across the Rwandan border. It is estimated that between 350-500,000 people had been displaced and that a third of the city was on fire.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian community in Goma met to establish a core team who would stay behind in case of further deterioration of the situation, UN staff was evacuated and a skeleton team was left behind initially.

In Kigali and in Kinshasa the UN agencies met on urgent basis and from Kigali an interagency mission arrived to Ginsenyi to assess the situation and the needs. The WHO representative in Rwanda, Dr Ousmane Diouf, participated in this mission along with a member of the WHO antenna of Goma. The assessment mission will be reinforced tomorrow with an epidemiologist and a water and sanitation engineer.

Another team from Kinshasa was also getting ready. Humanitarian agencies were also preparing to send an aid convoy to Gisenyi and Goma to provide the displaced with relief items.

An UNDAC (United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination) Team will be sent.

More information will be posted as soon as the preliminary assessment results are obtained.

For information on health consequences of volcano eruptions: Fact sheet from EHA on volcanoes

World Health Organization
Department of Emergency and Humanitarian Action

Technical Hazard Sheet

The Hazard

1. The different types of ("primary") eruptive events are:

  • Pyroclastic explosions;
  • Hot ash releases;
  • Lava flows;
  • Gas emissions;
  • Glowing avalanches (gas and ash releases).

Secondary events are

  • Melting ice, snow and rain accompanying eruptions are likely to provoke floods and hot mudflows (or lahars);
  • Hot ash releases can start fires.

Factors of Vulnerability

  • Topographic factors;
  • The proximity of a population to the volcano;
  • Structures with roof not resistant to ashes accumulations;
  • The lack of warning system and evacuation plans.

Main causes of Mortality and Morbidity

Direct impact

3. The risk depends on the different types of event:

  • Mediated trauma, crush type injuries, and lacerations can be caused by explosion and contact with volcanic mass;
  • Hot ash, gases, rock and magma cause skin and lung burns, asphyxiation, conjunctivitis or corneal abrasion;
  • Breathing the gases and fumes can cause acute respiratory distress;
  • Acid rain provokes eyes and skin irritation.

In the case of ashfall, particularly in fine particles, bronchial asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions can be aggravated in children as well as in adults. Death is highly improbable. Nonetheless, it can occur in persons with serious symptoms if they do not protect themselves from the ashes.

Indirect Impact

5. Ashes can have toxic consequences (i.e. gastrointestinal problem) due to ingestion of contaminated food or water.

6. Ashes can have mechanical consequences. The weight of ash may cause collapse of building (i.e. trauma).

7. Damage on health infrastructures and water systems can be severe. Problem of communication (ashes create serious interference) and transportation (poor visibility and slippery roads) are likely to happen.

Foreseeable Needs

8. Pending an assessment, needs can be anticipated such as: search and rescue, medical assistance, managing population displacement in the short-term, reducing the risk for vulnerable groups of being exposed to ashes, raising awareness on the risk associated with ashes (health and mechanical risk) and maintaining food security conditions over the long term (lava, ashes and acid rain cause damage to crops and livestock).

Don't Forget

9. Volcanic eruption have an important potential lethal impact in the absence of mitigation measures.

10. Mitigation measures:

  • Long-term management of economic and urban development of areas surrounding active volcanoes;
  • Preparedness plans and early warning systems (volcanological /seismological);
  • Public awareness and education on the risks and contingency plans;
  • Full or partial evacuation of the population;
  • Masks that retain small particles of ash for those who need to work in an ash-contaminated environment and for vulnerable groups (children, old people, those who have respiratory problems (asthma, ...);
  • Simple mask or protection for the general population who need to leave their home for short period.

In case of lava flows, the health impact is minimal. The lava path is predictable and the progression is slow. It leaves plenty of time for people to evacuate.

12. Early warning systems, timely and adequate inter-sectoral interventions and co-ordination system need to be in place.

Inappropriate Response

13. Household medicines or prescriptions: Do not send them ! These items are sometimes medically and legally inappropriate. Consult first WHO's guideline on essential drugs, and the local authority of the beneficiary country.

14. Medical or paramedical personnel or teams: Do not send them ! Local and neighbouring health services are best placed to handle emergency medical care to disaster victims.

15. Unilateral decision on resource allocation: Do not take it without evidence of needs.

Prepared by:

Department of Emergency and Humanitarian Action
Emergency Health Intelligence and Capacity Building
Please contact: eha@who.ch for further information.

Contacts for specific, related topics

For further information on: Please contact:
Environmental Emergencies Mr J Hueb
+(41 22) 791 3553 or Huebj@who.int
Injuries and Violence Prevention Dr E Krug
+(41 22) 791 3535 or Kruge@who.int
Non-communicable Diseases Ms J Canny
+(41 22) 791 4060 or Canny@who.int
Nutrition in Emergencies Ms Z Weise Prinzo
+(41 22) 791 4440 or Weiseprinzoz@who.int

For further reading:

An Overview of Disaster Management, 2nd ed. Geneva, United Nations Development Programme, Disaster Management Training Programme, 1992.

Coping with Natural Disasters: The Role of Local Health Personnel and the Community. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1989.

Do's and Don'ts After Natural Disasters. Washington, Pan American Health Organization Press Release, 1998.

Emergency Health Management after Natural Disaster. Washington, Pan American Health Organization Scientific Publication 407, 1981.

Natural Disasters: Protecting the Public's Health. Washington, Pan American Health Organization Scientific Publication 575, 2000.

Noji E. Public Health Consequences of Disasters. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.An Overview of Disaster Management, 2nd ed. Geneva, United Nations Development Programme, Disaster Management Training Programme, 1992.