Case study - volcanic eruption in a developing country: Mt Nyiragongo

In January 2002, fast-flowing basalt lava, (1,000 kilometres wide) poured out of Mount Nyiragongo and into the city of Goma. 100 people died, mostly from poisonous gas and becoming trapped in lava.

Nyiragongo is a steep-sided, active volcano. It is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nyiragongo and the shield volcano of Nyamuragira, 40 km away, are part of the East African Rift Valley. This is an area of many faults where the plates are being stretched as they move away from each other.

Satellite imaging of the Nyirangongo eruption
Satellite imaging of the Nyirangongo eruption

Cause of the eruption

The eruption happened on 17 January 2002. The volcano has a lava lake in its crater. Fissures opened up to the south side of the volcano and three streams of lava from the lake drained through the fissures. The lava reached speeds of 60 km/h. There was very little warning as the lava reached the city of Goma. The unrest in the country made it difficult to monitor the volcano and put emergency responses in place.

Social impacts

  • 12,500 homes were destroyed by ash and lava.
  • 400,000 people were evacuated.
  • Many people had to move to overcrowded refugee camps.
  • 45 people died in the first 24 hours.
  • The lava flow made it difficult to travel around Goma as it filled the roads. Aid agencies were unable to access some areas of Goma.
  • The lava took a long time to cool and it burnt people as they tried to return to their homes.
  • Cholera spread because of lack of sanitation in areas that people fled to.
  • Around 50 people were killed when fuel exploded while they were trying to siphon it off at a petrol station.
  • 14 nearby villages were destroyed in the lava flow.
The Nyiragongo volcanic eruption

Economic consequences

  • Lava covered 15 per cent of the city of Goma and destroyed 30 per cent of the city.
  • People returned to Goma hoping to find aid. One month after the eruption, 350,000 people were dependant on aid.
  • People lost their businesses and jobs.
  • Aviation fuel stores exploded as the lava flow damaged Goma airport.
  • Due to poverty, most people could not afford to rebuild their homes.

Environmental risks

  • Poisonous gases caused acid rain, which affected farmland and cattle. Many farmers lost income. Had the lava reached Lake Kivu, or seismic activity disrupted the lake, then dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and methane could have been released.
  • Carbon dioxide levels are still a serious (and possibly deadly) issue in areas where winds do not disperse the released gases.