How a natural disaster shows the cracks in a country: the case of the Nyiragongo Volcano and the DRC

By Natalie Domaas
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst

On Saturday May 22nd, the Nyiragongo volcano in the eastern Buhene district in the Democratic Republic of the Congo erupted for the first time since 2002. The volcano stands within ten kilometres from the city of Goma. So far, 20 lives have been lost, hundreds are missing and thousands of people were forced to unexpectedly flee their homes over the weekend – either to neighbouring towns or to Rwanda.[1] While such a natural disaster is not unheard of in this part of the world, the lack of monitoring and warning by the Volcano Observatory (OVG) is a symptom of a much larger problem plaguing the DRC.

The Volcano Observatory in the DRC is meant to track the development of volcanoes in the region, such as Nyiragongo, and warn citizens living nearby to evacuate if an eruption is imminent. However, citizens had to flee without prior warning last week when the volcano suddenly erupted around 19:30 local time. The lack of warning comes from the fact that the OVG had not been monitoring the volcano for almost seven months after funding from the World Bank was halted back in 2020.[2] Many residents of the Buhene district are blaming the OVG for the loss of property that occurred, however, the unexpected eruption of the Nyiragongo Volcano and its aftermath reveal deep institutional issues that continue to negatively impact the DRC and the safety and wellbeing of its citizens.

For years, the DRC has experienced continued cycles of violence. Many of these violent outbreaks can be attributed to the hundreds of non-state armed groups that exist in the country since the spill over from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The federal government of the DRC has not been able to gain a strong enough foothold across the country to initiate a ceasefire between these armed groups, a weakness which has been exacerbated by contested election results between President Felix Tshisekedi and supporters of former president Joseph Kabila, who had held the office since 2001.[3] While the need for extensive government reforms is not unknown to those in power, the ability, or lack thereof, to form a strong enough coalition in the DRC’s parliament has caused such reforms to be put on the backburner. This in turn has allowed rebel groups to thrive across the country and continue their control over the supply chains of “conflict minerals,” as more citizens join their ranks due to a lack of employment and economic opportunities.[4]

The eruption and aftermath of the Nyiragongo Volcano will unfortunately only allow this cycle to continue. As citizens of the Buhene district become internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, the ability for armed groups to take advantage of this suffering and assert their dominance in these regions will only make it more difficult for the federal government to regain the trust of citizens, let alone creating the necessary funding to ensure such disasters can be avoided in the future. 

References


[1] Africa News, “DR Congo: Nyiragongo Volcano Not Monitored for Seven Months,” May 22 2020, accessed May 24 2021, https://www.africanews.com/2021/05/23/dr-congo-nyiragongo-volcano-not-monitored-for-seven-months/

[2] Ibid.

[3] France 24 News, “DR Congo Police Enter Parliament After New Clashes,” December 8 2020, accessed May 24 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20201208-dr-congo-police-enter-parliament-after-new-clashes

[4] Global Conflict Tracker, “Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Council on Foreign Relations, updated May 21 2021, accessed May 24 2021, https://microsites-live-backend.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/violence-democratic-republic-congo

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