Deadly Gas Flows Add to a Lake’s List of Perils

The lake is divided between Congo and Rwanda,
often adversaries in the past

A sunrise seen from a boat on Lake Kivu
T. J. Kirkpatrick/Associated Press

 The New York Times

Goma Journal
GOMA, Congo — It was 10 p.m. in early April when
Dieudonne Masha and a neighbor were walking home
along the shores of Lake Kivu after a round of drinking.
As the neighbor tells it, the two were confronted
by a pair of soldiers patrolling the area, who asked
to see their identity cards. Mr. Masha did not have his.
"He decided to make a run for it," said
the neighbor, Innocent Rwagatore.
Mr. Masha fled to a nearby rocky ditch.
When his body was found the next morning,
in the place where he had apparently
been crouching for hours, there were no signs of violence.

The city of Goma and the surrounding area
of eastern Congo hold many dangers,
including armed rebellions, famine and volcanic explosions.

But there is another, more mysterious threat
as well: large reservoirs of methane and
carbon dioxide lying deep beneath
Lake Kivu's surface and along its shores.

While the gases can be tapped for energy,
they can also kill. Mr. Masha is believed
to have died instantly when he hid in
an invisible bubble of carbon dioxide,
known as a mazuku, or "evil wind" in Swahili.

When Flavius Josephus, a first-century historian,
referred to the Sea of Galilee in ancient Judea
as an "ambition of nature," he could also
have been speaking of Lake Kivu.

A freshwater lake split between longstanding
adversaries, Congo and Rwanda, Lake Kivu is
a hub of commerce that sits in a seismically
active region, with lava occasionally
flowing into it from nearby volcanoes.

The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo near
the lake's northern shore in 2002 stimulated
new interest in the gas fields beneath
Lake Kivu's surface: 392 billion cubic yards
of carbon dioxide and 78 billion cubic yards
of methane slowly building toward a saturation point,
or potential release.

It could take centuries, scientists say, but some experts
argue that another eruption of Mount Nyiragongo
or nearby Mount Nyamulagira — Africa's most
active volcano — could set off a devastating gas release.

Similar events have been recorded at least
twice before, both times on lakes in Cameroon
during the mid-1980s. In one case,
over 1,700 people were killed.

But Lake Kivu is many hundreds
of times bigger, and scientists say
the amount of gases trapped underwater is larger.

The lake's rare chemistry has also presented

a financial opportunity. The World Bank has

earmarked over $3 million for delicate

gas extraction that could harvest

years of energy for the countries of

the African Great Lakes region, and it has been

promoted by Rwanda and Congo as

a centerpiece of the new and shaky peace

between the former enemies.

According to Rwanda's minister of energy,

nearly 60 companies have come forward

expressing interest in extracting gases,

particularly methane, from the lake.

The likelihood of a major gas release

remains unknown. Some of the scientists studying

the lake have been hired as consultants

for the big-money deals. But war and

a lack of resources — this stunningly

beautiful region remains one of

the poorest

in the world — also make the lake and volcanoes

difficult to monitor closely.

"The problems of the lake are not just

chemical, they are political," said Dr. Dario Tedesco,

a volcano expert who is writing

the United Nations' contingency plans

for Mount Nyiragongo's next eruption.

Still, the mazukus are a chilling and

constant reminder of the power

within the earth. According to Dr. Tedesco,

nearly 100 people like Mr. Masha die

each year from the carbon dioxide vents

along Lake Kivu's northern shore.

Stories of people feeling breathless

and lightheaded when swimming

in the lake are common, which could

contribute to the many drownings there.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide

in 1994, many died from mazukus that

sent clouds of gas into jam-packed

refugee camps along the lake.

"We've known for a long time," said

James Nzumuka, Goma's district mayor.

Signs displaying skulls and warning

of the mazuku danger are spread

around the area, and children have

been told to stay away from the lake.

At Goma's public beach, a rocky stretch

where motorcycles are washed and

baptisms performed, fishermen speak

of the many other perils of life by the lake,

telling stories of deadly piracy over

expensive nets used to catch sambaza,

a local sardine-size fish. Other boats,

overloaded, tip and sink. Swelling storms

have thrown others into the lake,

where, according to the National Geographic Society,

lightning strikes more frequently

than anywhere else in the world.

Many of the deaths seem preventable.

Every dry season Goma's children die,

not from thirst, but from drowning.

From June to August, when the rains stop,

so does the regular water supply to many

of the city's residents. In a summertime ritual,

children go to the lake to fetch

buckets of water. Many do not

know how to swim.

Such was the case for Marie Bazimuka's son

Abu Bakar, 11, who disappeared in July

while fetching water from the lake with a friend.

His body was found two days later,

near the spot where he had gone missing.

"During the dry season, the lake likes

to kill people," said Mrs. Bazimuka, who considers

herself deeply religious. "It's a kind of demon, a devil."

For Goma, which has struggled mightily

to form a semblance of a functioning government,

keeping track of the deaths is difficult.

A calamity division of Goma's police force,

which was established last year,

reported that nine bodies were found

in the lake last August; the mayor's office

recorded 14. Neither has a record of

Abu Bakar's death in July. According to Mrs. Bazimuka,

who said three other children died

the same day, most deaths are not reported.

"The best protection the government could give us
is to provide water," said Edward Wilondje,
whose son Fisto, 17, drowned after going
to fetch water in August 2006.
"It's always the same issue."

Link here

Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

No comments:

Post a Comment