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Rachel Brass1st Secretary, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Goma
I'm currently hot-desking in the FCO main building in London. I was supposed to fly back to Goma yesterday after taking some leave in the UK. But, like quite a lot of people around the world, my plans have been scuppered by volcanic ash. Which is ironic really, given that Goma is about 20km from what are said to be two of the most active volcanoes on the planet.
The last time Nyiragongo (the volcano closest to Goma) erupted in 2002, it wiped out large parts of the town. (Here's a photo I took earlier this year - you can see how close it looks.)
The lava engulfed houses, shops and roads and ended up in Lake Kivu. Most of the population (some estimates say up to 500,000) were displaced when they had to flee the town. Sadly about 50 people died. Although this was remarkably few, when you think there are hundreds of thousands of people living in the area. Of course, this being DRC, people returned to their houses and shops as soon as the lava was cool enough to walk on. In many cases, even when the ground floor had been flooded by lava, they carried on living and working on the first floor. Driving round Goma today, you can see houses and shops still like that. In the day, you can sometimes see the constant plume of ash and gas coming from the top. On clear nights, you can see the glow from the lava lake in the crater reflecting orange against the Goma sky. Pretty awesome stuff in both senses of the word.
In January this year, the other volcano (Nyiamuligira) erupted. It wasn't as big or dramatic as the Nyiragongo eruption. Luckily this one normally erupts (on average every three years or so) into the Virunga National Park and usually disrupts fewer people. But even so, Goma spent a week in a volcanic haze, with really limited visibility and crops were damaged by the ash.
The house that I live in is in an area that was totally destroyed by lava in 2002. But the real estate market in Goma is booming and the prime land by the lake has been snapped up again by businessmen. Hundreds of houses are being built on top of the black lava rock. There's no shortage of building materials - walls (and even houses) are constructed using chunks of the rock. Very ingenious. Having said that I (and a lot of other people) are working on the assumption that lava is like lightening and doesn't strike the same place twice. I hope this assumption holds true.
The volcanoes are closely monitored by the Goma Volcano Observatory with a team of Congolese and international vulcanologists. I think everyone sleeps sounder in their beds at night, knowing that they're there and watching.